Every company has a culture; the question is whether it is the one its leaders intended. When Lou Gerstner was hired to turn around ailing IBM, he noted that everything was going fine until the day he ran into the strength of IBM’s culture. What he discovered was that a strong culture is not the same as a healthy culture and that his challenge wasn’t the disciplines of execution, but radically changing a culture that was killing the company – one ritual at a time. Long before he wrote the book about his adventures at IBM, he concluded that:
“Culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game. In the end, a company is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”
His insight speaks directly to the potentially destructive power of culture as “the way we do things around here” when they are the wrong ways. The source of this power, which can be good or bad, comes from what a culture is: institutionalized values, mind-sets and behaviors that are believed to support success. Belief is the key operative word in this definition since cultures form around what an organization’s leaders believe about success. When you change the beliefs, you change the culture. Of course, that is easier said than done as former Merck CEO Richard Clark made clear:
“. . . Culture eats strategy for lunch. You can have a good strategy in place, but if you don’t have the culture . . . that allows you to successfully implement that strategy, the culture of the organization will defeat the strategy.”
That’s a lot of power and one of the reasons some leaders talk about vision, culture, and strategy in the same breath, as though they are inseparable. Nonetheless, many leaders allow their company’s culture to evolve organically with little to no intervention. That is simply not a good idea given the consequences and availability of tools that will help them design their intended culture – one that better supports and sustains enterprise success.
We believe that there are five core dimensions of cultural beliefs that must be addressed in order to design an intentional culture. In order to tap into those dimensions, leaders should start by asking themselves:
- What does the enterprise want to achieve (e.g., real growth in sales and profit)?
- How does the enterprise see to the well-being of others (e.g., compassion, involvement)?
- How do enterprise members behave (e.g., teamwork, respect)?
- How is the enterprise unique (e.g., hip, fun)?
- How does the enterprise compete (e.g., customer centricity, ethics)?
It is important that leaders clearly agree on the answers to these questions. By further breaking the five dimensions into several sub-dimensions, leaders can take a manageable approach to designing the intended culture. However, many leaders are unsure or unaware of the level of detail needed to articulate a culture. As an example, “What does the enterprise want to achieve?” speaks to the content of success and is defined by the desired results and reputation to be earned. The remaining four questions should identify the beliefs that help the team strike the needed balance between results and reputation, and how those beliefs are to be institutionalized and weaved into the fabric of the company.
When leaders choose to design an intentional culture, rather than letting the culture they have evolve organically, they are taking the first step toward truly integrating vision and strategy with culture, and ensuring that what they need to do to be successful actually becomes “the way we do things around here.”