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Culture Can Only Be Observed
Or why attempts to "change culture" generate backlash
You can’t create culture, you can only observe it. “What is your culture” is a de rigeur interview question: You’re trying to estimate your ability to influence, mesh with and benefit from some future work group or organization, and a leading indicator is to query the “culture.”
Culture is one of those corporate attributes notoriously hard to define. It subsumes everything from corporate values to ways of working to deference to the organization chart. During one job interview (a dozen years ago, with a company no longer in existence) my ask to “define the culture” was answered with “We use Lotus Notes for email.” While seemingly incongruous to the standard shapes and sizes of culture, that simple statement provided me (in retrospect) one of the strongest definitions of culture.
Culture measures how ideas flow through the company. It encompasses how and where ideas are generated and measures the degree to which those ideas are given headroom and support to develop and connect to others. Culture is also a yardstick for how creativity and challenges to existing modes of operation are respected and rewarded. Culture is a derivative; it’s observed and not created.
Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine, once said that “Ideas are networks;” implying that people join them if they are attractive. A network that moves ideas through a company or provides an ingress point for new insights will generate positive engagement. That is cultural attraction in action.
The corollary to “culture is observed” is that you cannot drive culture change or imperatives top-down. Top-down demands are the antithesis of allowing seedling ideas to flourish. You can change behaviors, structures and reward mechanisms to modulate how ideas flow, and therefore indirectly impact culture, but I have yet to see a direct path to generating culture. Healthy breakfast choices aren’t culture - they’re incentives to come into work earlier, and as an adjacency, they get you to talk to co-workers in a less transactional context. They help create those networks of ideas, by expanding the edge of your networks over a healthy burrito, but employee amenities are not culture in and of themselves. As a corner case, exhortations to change corporate culture come off as a “Lost Weekend With Van Halen” stab at overlaying foreign (to the organization) behavioral models.
What works? True evidence of collaboration or a partnership oriented culture. A sense that not everything has to be invented or derived in-house, in-group, or even in-market. Rewards for curiosity that uncovers ways to work across whatever virtual boundary exists. An early company in the UNIX application business had a guide to corporate vocabulary - a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Company Culture” would have been an entirely apropos title, because it was an irreverent but practical guide to how to express ideas in the company. If you were fluent, you were culturally relevant.
Best culture I’ve experienced: Sun Microsystems in the mid-1990s. Every idea had some merit, every product started with a key hardware, networking, mechanical, kernel and processor engineers pressure testing the constraints of size, heat, performance, cost and price. It was an open door culture up to Scott McNealy’s office, with the organization chart guiding expense report approval more than disruptive idea network flow. “The Network is The Computer” was a derivative of a network of ideas that created those computers.
Words: Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock. Maybe four books ago, I got the feeling that Stephenson’s editors had given up on getting him to deliver something of Cryptonomicon speed and heft; it was mostly heft. I feel like he’s back to verbal fighting weight in his latest, where he tackles terraforming the Earth with his usual smattering of colorful characters and obscure geo-political themes.
Notes: Mostly Weather Report, emphasis on the 8:30 live album and Heavy Weather. Latter was the first with Jaco Pastorius and former has some of his most amazing bass work. Simple riffs are decorated with fills, odd (out of key) notes, lots of ghost notes (you hear the string lightly plucked but not resonating), and every song has a drive that is worthy of the “straight ahead” moniker.