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Jul 6, 2014

Corporate culture: emergent or directed?

Dan Swanson sent me a generous extended summary (from Summary.com) of Mike Myatt's recent book Hacking Leadership that set me thinking this morning about the extent to which the corporate culture can be hacked. Specifically, the [unnamed] author of the summary wrote:
"Great corporate cultures are intentional — they are built by design. Creating a healthy culture is a matter of making a focus point within the corporate values, purpose, vision, mission and strategy."
Skimming quickly past the thorny question of what might make a corporate culture 'great' or 'healthy', I don't fully understand 'making a focus point within the corporate values, purpose, vision, mission and strategy'. I appreciate that values, vision and mission statements, and strategies are commonly used to express management's intent, but what the author means by 'making a focus point within [them']' literally escapes me.

If he/she means that management uses, or should use, the values, purpose, vision, mission and strategy to design the corporate culture, I'm afraid I simply don't accept that. Such written statements may arguably have some purpose in guiding or aligning the way employees behave, but even that is dubious in practice. In my experience, corporate value statements and the like differ from, and in some cases are diametrically opposed to, the actual corporate culture. They are mere puffery, worthy statements of intent that achieve very little in practice, especially if that's all there is: things may be different if they are used as an integral part of a more comprehensive corporate change initiative, in which case the statements themselves, and those dreaded motivational posters, are almost entirely incidental. Far more important, in my opinion, are things such as:
  • The analysis and thinking behind those fine statements. As literally expressed, corporate value statements and the like are usually vague, superficial hand-waving nonsense. Most are generic, stilted and cringeworthy ("Our people are our greatest assets"), often making them unintentially ironic and hence counterproductive ("Yeah, right"). Most are overladen with meaning, having been carefully crafted by committees of managers with differing objectives, leading to them becoming bones of contention and, ultimately, either the least disagreeable compromises or expressing the will of the most powerful contributors (seeding discontent among any dissenters). If, instead, they represent the outcome of a deep, insightful and meaningful discussion, and a true consensus of management's opinion and intent, then they are far more powerful. If they clearly state specific, achievable and measurable goals, then they can gain real traction. However, this is dissappointingly if not vanishingly rare in reality.
  • Actual behaviors - what people (especially managers and other influential employees) do in practice, how myriad decisions are made, what gets supported and put into practice as well as what doesn't - matters far more than any mere expression of intent. Furthermore, behaviors and directives from management that directly and obviously conflict with management's expressed intent are Kryptonite, seeding dissent and seriously undermining the objectives. This is a common problem even in corporations that are succeeding in changing their cultures, since 'the old ways' that are so deeply embedded are bound to surface from time to time. Identifying and responding positively and sympathetically to that reality is, I reckon, a necessary part of cementing the change.
  • Their communication as part of the corporate change program. They need to be expressed in a context and a manner that resonates with and motivates the individuals, who each have unique perspectives and preferences. An effective program also needs to incorporate compliance and enforcement activities, such as encouraging and perhaps rewarding behaviors that comply with and support the expressed values, while discouraging and perhaps penalizing non-compliant behaviors - although whether these should be explicit or implicit is a moot point. Motivation is a complex topic that can't be adequately described in such crude terms.
Exactly the same arguments apply, by the way, to those dreadful statements tacked on the end of most advertisements, afterthoughts at best or manipulative brainwashing at worst. "Value and style", "Number one in shoes", "Your choice" or whatever are bland, crass advertising not branding. The true brand is the complete suite of public impressions and perceptions about the company, its products, its people, its value for money, its quality and so forth. The true brand is driven largely by customer-supplier interactions and experiences over the lifetimes of products (goods and services) purchased, particularly concerning their quality (as in fitnesss for purpose), performance and consistency, plus to a lesser extent comments and statements about the company and/or its products by influential, trusted people, particularly those with no ax to grind (i.e. not paid reviewers, marketers or advertizers, or indeed employees and agents of the company concerned). In that context, advertisements are far less influential on the true brand, although their informational content can be useful.

Having blabbered away on something of a tangent, let me return to the book summary quoted above, the next paragraph in fact:
"Culture is a construct that must be embedded into the very fabric of the corporate identity. It must be part of the ethos that describes why the enterprise exists, what and who it values, and how it will behave. This is why culture must be created from a design perspective — it must be intentional and purposeful. It must be part of the strategy that dictates acceptable behaviors, how decisions will be made, and what will drive operational focus."
As you might guess, I disagree with almost every part of that:
  • 'Culture is a construct' implies that it can be constructed in the same manner as, say, a building: no, it can be influenced and guided to some extent by skilled efforts, but that's not the way buildings are built! It is not a mechanistic or deterministic process.
  • 'Culture ... must be embedded into the very fabric of the corporate identity'? No, the culture is an inherent part of the corporate identity, along with the true brand. It can't be embedded, since it is already within.
  • 'It must be part of the ethos that describes why the enterprise exists ...'?? No again: the corporate culture is an inherent characteristic, or rather a set of characteristics, of the corporation.
  • 'This is why culture must be created from a design perspective' - ummmm, it can't actually be created as such, at least not in the literal sense that I believe the author means although one might argue that expressing the desired state of the culture (through those vision statements and so on) constitutes a blueprint.
  • '[The culture] must be intentional and purposeful'. I suppose the desired culture must be intentionally and purposefully expressed or described in order to have the desired effect, but I'm not convinced the culture per se must necessarily be 'intentional and purposeful'. The culture is whatever the culture is, and will vary in all dimensions e.g. across time, within the corporation, in the details and at the higher levels.
  • 'It must be part of the strategy that dictates acceptable behaviors ...' seems to me to conflate corporate culture with corporate strategy and corporate vision-type statements, whereas these are distinct concepts with different meanings and purposes. On top of that, nothing (not even an edict by a powerful dictator, as history has proven time and again) can absolutely dictate human behaviors. We are sentient, free-willed, self-motivated and self-determined beings, not robotic machines. Even prisoners in solitary confinement under the most draconian regimes find ways to express or demonstrate their resistance.
  • As to 'what will drive operational focus', that is a key purpose of strategy but not culture. Corporate culture is more concerned with everyday behaviors and practices than with lofty strategic goals.
My personal interest in this topic primarily relates to the corporate security culture. I doubt it can be designed and built as such, but I know it can be influenced. However, there is another very important factor not mentioned in the two paragraphs quoted from the book summary: culture changes gradually and incrementally. It takes time. It evolves. Step changes are rare, normally occuring in reaction to dramatic events or incidents that occur as opposed to being artificially created ... although I am intrigued at the possibility of engineering events and incidents in order to achieve a desired outcome. It's surely a risky approach, though, something perhaps to consider another day.

Meanwhile, I have outdoors stuff to do, and thoughts to mull over, so that's enough for now.