On building culture

For reasons irrelevant to this post (and despite probably being detrimental to my general wellbeing) I follow the Arizona Cardinals NFL team, a historically bad franchise. Last season was founded on high hopes and a positive start but ultimately dashed by an all-too familiar slide to mediocrity. Pundits and commentators were critical of player leadership and accountability among senior players and others. Conversations explored team culture and how a winning culture is a product not just of the head coach and the senior leaders in the organisation but of everyone’s behaviour. That if you are not holding each other to account for actions and performance then it can get downhill pretty quickly. The conversations make me think about corporate values and culture*, how it is really possible to change them, and whose responsibility it is to do so.

I have to confess to a frustration with traditional top-down, corporately-curated processes of developing an organisational culture based on clear vision, mission and value statements, frustration not emerging from rational analysis but just a gut feeling it was not the best way to do things. I’ve had to interrogate my unease with such initiatives. I’ve also had to reconcile that in previous roles I have been complicit in such initiatives, and that deep down I quite like the order that, on paper at least, such corporate statements offer. What has this interrogation led to? If we accept that a central intention of such initiatives is to try and create a unifying corporate culture we have to ask whether it is really possible or helpful to do so. 

Is it possible?

To define values and then simply instruct employees to ‘get with the programme’ or to recruit people who say they agree with your values is not only hard to evidence beyond soundbites and platitudes, it is unenforceable. One of the key insights from the abolition of prohibition is that it is almost impossible to legislate for morality. How can you define a culture and only have employees who display the desired culture in practice? Do you monitor for transgressions? Do you reward those who are you strongest cultural fits and who are the outliers? Does this show up in remuneration? Do you fire the non-conformists? 

Is culture something not to be mandated but something that is the product of the company, its employees, its relations with the outside world, its leadership, its propensity for risk, its governance, its failings and its successes, its history, its ambitions…  I therefore like the idea that culture as an emergent property of a complex dynamic system**. The company, community, society. The product of all those things listed above. This being the case, mandating culture is surely not possible. 

Morton C Blackwell wrote his 45 laws of the public policy process in the wake of Barry Goldwater losing the 1964 US Presidential election. Number 26 states ‘Personnel is policy’. In other words, your policy is created by the people on your staff, through their behaviour and actions. Prohibition was policy, but ended up being completely enforceable because it ran so counter to what people were actually doing. The more legal instruments of enforcement were added, the more unworkable they became. As policy, so culture. Both are emergent properties of a complex system.

Is it helpful? 

If we define our values and purpose we end up having to ‘convert’ existing employees to the new (or changed) doctrine and set up processes through which to judge the extent to which potential new hires align to these. What is the result? We are breeding conformity and institutionalising survival techniques. 

Conformity is (obviously) the enemy of diversity of thought, opinion, perspective, background… it is more likely to lead to group-think, poor decisions, skewed thinking, bias and discrimination. When the institutional bubble everyone is operating within drifts further and further away from the reality of the world around it there comes a point of vulnerability where the smallest of pin-pricks can have devastating consequence. Enron. Purdue Pharma. Carillion. Ratners. VW. Facebook. BP. The list is endless. 

Institutionalisation of staff – who either enthusiastically lap-up the new values or keep their head down and wait for it to pass – also results in an inability of people to give their best version of themselves at work, distracted as they are by the latest initiative they have to find ways to survive or outlast. 

The result?

None of this adds up to the likely success of a new corporate values campaign not does it result in a set of employees doing their best work. A diverse range of employees with license to challenge, to question, to hold themselves and others to account, across all levels and functions of an organisation – that is surely more likely to lead to a successful organisation. The right levels of the right kind of pressure in the right environment can create amazing things; too little – or the wrong kind – of pressure can create disastrous things and, if we are not careful, destroy people and organisations. From there, the road back – if there is one – can be long and painful.  

The most successful NFL teams are the best run organisations as a whole. They do not develop through a corporate love-in where everyone professes to share the same values, they develop through diversity, having grit in the machine, holding each other to account at all levels of the organisation, making more good decisions than those that consistently lose. Sure, there are likely to be some common traits. A competitive desire to win. A love of the game. A willingness to work harder than anyone else. An openness to learning. Bring in enough players and staff with these characteristics and an emergent culture will reflect them.   

Many of us are not in an organisation to simply take home a pay-check and have a comfortable ride, ticking off the years as we go. Through adversity, challenge, thinking, actions and accountability we can produce amazing results in teams, despite, and not because of, a corporate desire for a shared culture. 

*For the sake of clarity, I am drawing a distinction between values and culture as follows. An institution’s values are the underpinning ideas that an organisation holds most dear, in the same way that we as individuals hold different values to be most important in our own lives. Corporate culture is the way those institutional values are brought to life in reality. My thesis here is that both are emergent properties of a complex, dynamic system (in this case an organisation) and therefore impossible to mandate. 

**I’ve read a lot of Dave Snowden’s work in this space and, having just completed his ‘basecamp’ training exploring the different ordered and unordered domains we encounter, am no doubt drawing on his ideas here. I’m certainly not suggesting that this is in any way a particularly new insight to the world, only for me.

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