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What is this culture you speak of?

18 December

We’re in the business of culture.  We study it, measure it, try to improve it, measure it again. It’s not the most comprehensible line of work though, culture change. Try explaining it to your parents:

“I’m a culture transformation consultant.”


“Culture, Ma.  I wanna change cultures.”

You get the idea; not so easy.  So what is culture really?  Not in the technical, academic, or professional sense (that question has been fielded by greater men than I), but in an everyday sort of way.  What does it look and feel like?  How does it work?  Why should anyone care about it?  That’s the question I’ll try to tackle in this post.

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In the popular media, you hear “culture” being bandied about more and more, as if it were a self-evident and universally understood notion.  …company XYZ, which has struggled to meet shareholder expectations for the last 10 years, cites a bureaucratic and risk-averse culture as one of the main reasons for its prolonged underperformance.  On the other hand, while browsing the websites of numerous high-tech startups, I’ve noticed culture being frequently pointed to as a competitive advantage.  So if a good culture makes for a successful startup and a bad culture brings megacorps to their knees, it must be well understood, right?  Wrong.

Go to the websites of a handful of startup companies and click on the “about us” or “our culture” link and you’ll find a surprising variety of culture depictions.  Sometimes it’s a set of beliefs, sometimes it’s the personality of key people in the company, or the story of the company’s founding.  In many cases, culture is defined as the social benefits within the company.  Like “we have an ice cream machine”.  Or a beer tap.  Or a dogs-at-work policy.

Now go to a few Fortune 500 websites and click on the “culture” page.  For the most part, this will be a published set of core values that sit smugly next to the glorious mission and vision of the company.  And where this all gets a bit odd is that a cross section of values randomly selected from various industries and regions will look suspiciously similar.  Almost without fail, companies from around the world will cite some form of “customers”, “employees”, “service”, “quality”, “integrity”, “teamwork”, and/or “results” as the definition of their culture.  And yet we all know there are huge differences between these companies; the kind of differences that lead to success or failure.  Clearly, the formal culture statements do not reflect these differences.

So here we see that culture is consistently seen as a predictor of company success but then defined as anything from “integrity” to “you can wear sandals here”.  That’s confusing and not very helpful for those companies who really want to do something about it.  So let me propose an alternate definition of culture that hopefully makes it a bit more usable:

Culture is the autopilot function of an organization.


It’s the way a company runs without anyone having to think about it.  In other words, if a company were like a person, culture would be its unconscious mind.  Like when you’re in a car and you realize that you’ve been driving for the last 20 minutes without thinking about what you were doing.

I find it amazing and a bit disconcerting at times how much we are able to do without really thinking.  But, in fact, it’s actually a necessity for us;  if we had to consciously think through all of our choices and actions, we would be paralyzed by consideration.  I’m eating now.  Should I reach for my fork?  Yes.  What should I pick up first?  Broccoli?  No, Potato.  Now raise the fork toward my mouth.  Open mouth.  Insert potato.  Chew.  Keep chewing.  And so on… Research in this areahas shown that our capacity to solve problems unconsciously far exceeds that of our conscious mind.  And because of this dramatic difference between our rational and intuitive mental horsepower, we find ourselves relying primarily on our unconscious problem solving ability; for better or worse.

Companies are not so different from people in this way. They don’t have the luxury of carefully thinking through everything; they have to just DO things.  Constantly. There are only a handful of moments in the life of a company when it takes the time to really think through and reflect on its actions:  annual strategic planning meetings; quarterly reviews; individual and team performance assessments; mergers and acquisitions.  Outside of these select moments, work just sort of happens.  People go about their daily tasks in a mostly automatic fashion.  The company organizes and operates without really ‘thinking’ about it.  Listening to the radio, staring out the window, adjusting the A/C, wondering what’s on for dinner.  The cultural auto-pilot is almost always in the driver seat, directing the thoughts and activity of the company.  Determining its fate, essentially.

And that is why culture is so important and at the same time perplexing.  It’s fast and powerful in directing our actions, but mostly invisible to us for all intensive purposes.  The work of culture change requires us to plunge into the depths of our collective corporate unconscious; to reverse-engineer and then re-wire our auto-pilot settings.  This is not a simple task.  But it begins with having a clear understanding of the subject at hand.

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