We all know Culture to be the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social groups. This definition of culture has been attached to our livelihood since grade school, and ultimately is how we are to shape the world we live in. As we mature though, we find out how deep the rabbit hole of our society goes down. Once we complete the necessary education, form our opinions of our vocational skills, and tackle other life events like marriage or career moves, we start to ask ourselves deep questions that really pull on our complex heartstrings.
The question that has been nagging me recently is, where does culture belong in the workplace?
In the creative position that I am in, I have daily chances to find solutions to questions like this. It’s been a pleasure seeing our company culture grow into what it is today, and this will be a two-part series talking about company culture and how it is evolving.
There is a famous quote allegedly attributed to Peter Drucker, that culture eats strategy for breakfast—or something like that. It implies you can set whatever course for your business you want, but it will be your culture, what your people believe, and how they behave that determines what gets accomplished. Culture isn't inherently about workspaces and perks like comfy chairs and ping pong tables. Ultimately, there are habits that people form, and out of those habits, how they make decisions. It’s how they respond to challenges, pressure, and discomfort and what they believe is good or bad based on where they have been incented, rewarded, reinforced, and possibly even punished in their workplace.
The set of unwritten norms of conduct that guide the behavior of a group, expressing what is considered “right” and “wrong”. – Reznal Odnanref
Company culture is what you have when the majority in your workforce act out the same set of beliefs, even if they are not the traits that are touted by your company. For that reason, culture can be a powerful force in an organization for better or worse. As a result, there is an ongoing debate about which is truly more important within a company trying to change its direction—the strategy or the culture. This “culture eats strategy” maxim warns us of culture interfering with or contradicting strategy, which it certainly can. But we must remember successful strategies enable business solvency, which enables an organizational culture of some kind to exist at all. In fact, you might say that in ideal situations, culture and strategy nurture each other in an ongoing cycle. Whether it remains a healthy cycle depends on several factors, but let's just start by saying you can get into the cycle by the business being relatively successful for some minimum amount of time. How long that successor solvency continues is one of the primary factors that allow cultural behaviors and traditions to be ingrained. Those habits are what can potentially lead to problems with new strategies sometime down the road. So, in an existing business desiring to change direction, how do we reconcile culture and strategy? Can you do just the right strategic work, focusing on the right business goals to end up with the right culture or a culture or a new culture? Or do you have to start by addressing the culture to make sure it allows the right business actions decisions and work to get done?
Start with “Why”
To quote a part of Simon Sinek's amazing Start with Why theory, “A leader's job is not to do the work for others, it's to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible.” In that spirit, I have seen advice on culture creation offered two ways.
- Many people advocate that if you just get the strategy correct and execute it effectively, then the right behaviors can't help but follow. This results in overtime in the right culture. This reasoning goes even if you don't have the desired culture, you can get it as a side effect of just getting your core business right, and again this perspective is correct in that success makes having a culture possible it's what sustains culture and allows it to survive.
- Others take the opposite approach. They advise focusing on culture first to make sure it enables and doesn't impede your new strategy. Some would say culture is the actual enabler of the execution of any kind of strategy. That strategy is lived out through the behaviors and actions since that is what culture most often influences. So, this perspective is also correct, in that culture does matter – often significantly.
At the same time, each side also has a valid critique of the other. Exclusively focusing on culture can't be the end game. the business strategy and executing on it is understandably the primary objective. Obviously, company culture can't exist if the company goes out of business, so a good strategy is clearly important, but if culture becomes a powerful enough influence on the motivations of the workforce, the culture can actually negatively impact an organization to the point of jeopardizing its solvency and its future. And that's certainly worthy of being addressed seriously.
So, what's the key to balancing these? I think it's about discovering the organizational landscape and figuring out if the existing culture in your business is going to readily enable your strategy or not. Investigate what culture you really have, remembering that who people are and what they truly believe is most revealed when uncomfortable or under pressure. That honest analysis is what will give you a clue if your culture chews up and spit out your strategy. To that end, this is ultimately the linchpin question to ask yourself about your culture—can the culture be sustained by anything other than the successful execution of the strategy?
So, ultimately resolving this strategy versus culture dilemma is about doing the hard work to figure out if the terrain that exists, and whether it either enables or prevents the right behaviors you need to map your terrain your culture. Find out what actually drives behaviors that lead decisions and actions in your company and if you discover some wrong behaviors, just like the first step in any 12-step program, you have to own it and admit it as the current state. Once that difficult work is out of the way, the true creation of culture can begin.
We will get to dive more into this next week, as I break down where Verb has traveled in our company culture process. Want to see some of the cultural things we’ve done as a company? Click here to check it out.
About the author:
David Butler usually shares some of his monumental moments at Verb, dives into the inspiring process of collaboration that makes up the foundation of the Creative Team, and shares plenty of insight with his frequent blog posts.