Why Talking about Culture Is Critical

Since our recent offsite, we've been thinking a lot about what we do and how we describe it. We've looked at more than 20 competitors, talked to clients, and taken a hard look at ourselves. And we noticed that consulting companies like us try to avoid the word "culture." Afraid that it sounds too "fuzzy," we find clever ways around it. We talk about teams, or ways of working, or 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 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. 

But just because it's hard or complicated or nuanced doesn't mean we shouldn't try. In fact, we must. Your competitors can clone your products, your apps, your positioning. They can steal your people. They can steal your suppliers and distributors.

They can't clone your culture. 

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

We're done being shy about the word, or our mission.

When we work with a client, our first task is to define their 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 the culture. We have to experiment with every lever, from hiring and onboarding, to decision making and communication... 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. And while we're measuring things, we have to make sure that the strategy actually works. Buying a strategy from McKinsey guarantees nothing, especially in a world that McKinsey wasn't born for.

Most importantly, we have to do all of this quickly. Urgency is not optional. We need tight, fast cycles of experimentation and learning between strategy and culture. That's how we sharpen the pair into a lethal advantage over our clients' 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 CEO in the auto industry, was a strategic and cultural move all at once.

  • Uber's struggled because they thought a culture of corner-cutting and rule-breaking wouldn't have a negative strategic impact.

  • Tesla could still 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. 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.

We're NOBL, and we believe culture can be your competitive advantage.


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