The Dreaded “C” Word

"Culture" has been seen as too soft, too fuzzy, too threatening of a word to use outright. It's time to embrace it.

Consulting companies like ours have historically avoided the word “culture.”

We think clients see it only as a “nice to have” or find it too “fuzzy” to spend against.

Go look at our positioning statements. I did. I read about twenty of them across our industry and not a one said the “c” word outright. Ours doesn’t either.

Instead we find clever ways around it. We talk about teams and ways of working and transformation and missions. We all talk A LOT about change but we’re pretty careful not to say culture change.

For years, clients did downplay “culture.” They did find it too “soft.” They wouldn’t make room for it at board meetings or in their budgets. They did so at their peril, it turns out. Growth without cultural attention has proven itself a recipe for disaster after disaster. Competition without cultural attention has proven itself futile.

Culture is fuzzy. People crave a simple definition and simple ways to manipulate it. But culture, well, it’s [brace for nerd talk] an emergent property of the complex system that is your organization [/nerd]. Culture is like climate. You can feel it but you can’t pull a single lever to change it. You can pull lots of levers and influence it, but you can’t always predict how you will influence it. In complex systems, we say that control is distributed and because of that, outcomes are uncertain.

But just because it’s hard or complicated or nuanced doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. There’s always treasure found in doing the hard things.

All of us avoid using the word culture, but all of us are trying to do roughly the same thing: turn the interaction of your business strategy and your organizational culture into a sustainable competitive advantage.

Your competitors can clone your products, your apps, your positioning, etc. They can steal your people. They can steal your suppliers and distributors.

Your competitors can’t clone your culture.

We avoid using the word, but culture is the last sustainable competitive advantage.

I’m done being shy about the word or our mission.

Our first task is to define your strategy, not in Powerpoint slides but in attitudes, tradeoffs, and behaviors. At the individual, team, and organizational levels.

We have to answer, “What’s it mean to live your strategy?”

Our second task is to influence your culture. We have to experiment with every lever, from the people who you hire and promote, how you onboard, how you exit, to your decision making, to how teams communicate, to the spaces you create for interaction, and etc. and etc. …. but not your ping-pong table.

Ping pong tables are not culture.

Then, we have to make sure we haven’t made the climate worse. We have to measure and test and measure again.

Side note: beware the consultant who is wholly confident in their ability to change culture. They will cause you nothing but harm.

While we’re measuring things, we have to make sure that your strategy actually works. Buying it from McKinsey guarantees nothing, especially in a world that McKinsey wasn’t born for.

We have to do all of this quickly. Urgency is not optional. We need tight, fast cycles of experimentation and learning between your strategy and your culture. That’s how we sharpen the pair into a lethal advantage over your competitors.

A cultural advantage doesn’t just win you customers, it knocks out your competitors.

Amazon can’t execute a strategy of speed and razor-thin margins without a culture of speed and efficiency.

Apple can’t win by making products we love without a culture obsessed with design and perfection.

GM can’t buck against a staid industry and compete against Tesla without fostering a new culture of innovation. Promoting Mary Barra, the first female auto-CEO, was a strategic and cultural move in one.

Uber may be doomed because they thought a culture of corner-cutting and rule-breaking wouldn’t have a negative strategic impact.

Tesla could be in trouble because they didn’t think a culture of over-work, led by an unrestrained and exacting CEO, wouldn’t spill over to the rest of the company.

Cultural dysfunction is strategic dysfunction.

Cultural advantage is strategic advantage.

Even though our industry has been reticent to use the word, our clients haven’t been. Every project we’ve had since we started the company in 2014 began with a discussion that included the word culture at least once. Clients talked about cultures that were challenged or cultures they wanted to protect as they scaled.

If we really think of ourselves as being customer-centric, it’s time to stop avoiding the word.

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