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Observations & Perspectives on Corporate Culture

Several insightful perspectives came out of a discussion last month at the i4cp 2017 Conference on the culture component of the People-Profit Chain that could fill a decent-sized chapter in a book. So, in summarizing the key highlights and potential areas for future exploration, I selected a few I thought were the most critical.  

Clearly every organization today is being driven to evolve their culture from one that reinforces the “ways of doing things around here” based on long-term success experiences, which were useful when the pace of change was slower a few decades ago, to one that can respond to rapid change. The goal is to create a culture that enables the company to get ahead of today’s ever-accelerating pace of change. In this matter, or whether to keep their current culture as is or look for ways to improve it, most organizations do not have a choice if they want to remain competitive, and ultimately, survive.

Three challenges

The big challenges that organizations face in attempting to do this include the following:

While our plans for executing business marketing, leadership development, talent acquisition, and overall steps for moving the business forward can be changed fairly quickly in response to new conditions, people are more resistant to changing the way they actually behave relative to old habits. Once a certain “way-of-doing-things” is embedded in an organization it becomes a very powerful, albeit unwritten policy, that is hard to edit.

The invisible rules of culture reach deep into every part of the organization and are like an inter-connected web of unwritten rules. We therefore cannot change a culture by simply changing what a few people at the top follow as their behavioral guidelines. We can’t do it by changing what all the managers and supervisors use as their behavioral guidelines either. We must literally change these invisible and interconnected rules at every level of our organizations.

Finally, while we are changing these invisible rules, we need to be mindful of the fact that we are working on a vital part of what makes the company successful today. We need to think of our work on culture as being like someone trying to upgrade a 747 in flight in order to improve its performance without losing altitude. We need to remember that the current culture, while it may not be able to get us to our next level targets, is what got us to where we are and keeps us here.

Three observations

A few of my observations on potential areas to explore for solutions include the following:

  1. Making unwritten cultural rules more explicit by identifying them and documenting them as well as their relationships to each other across levels of the company.
  2. Thinking about culture-change as culture-evolution that adds to or modifies the existing unwritten success policy in order to achieve greater success. This is along the lines of a “keep the best, ditch the rest and add more successful behaviors” approach.
  3. Increasing the speed of collaboration and coordination about all the parts of the organization both horizontally and vertically. Today’s company needs to be more like a well-coordinated Secret Service team plugged into an open communication net through wireless devices in their ears, as opposed to operating like a slow bureaucracy where all information travels through slow vertical chains. i4cp has researched, in coordination with Babson professor Rob Cross, various facets of collaboration, that will be made available to i4cp members over the course of 2017.