What Kind Of Culture Will Deliver That Success? (Lesson 6)

If I want to understand the culture of an organisation, and I don’t have access to genuine data, I simply ask people, “What grows easily in your organisation?” Is it teamwork, communication, rapid problem-solving, creativity and innovation, or is it something else? Back-biting, cynicism, politics (the bad kind), blame, silos, and the like?

Your culture is a greenhouse in the sense that it determines what grows easily in your organisation. If you are continually experiencing the wrong things in your organisation, there’s a good chance that your culture is making it way too easy for those things to happen, and way too hard for all the right things to happen.

To fix it, you can either spend all your time and energy on fixing the problems—or to follow the analogy, pulling weeds—or you can fix the greenhouse environment that’s empowering the growth of the weeds—the culture. More on that shortly.

The second metaphor is similar—that of soil. Soil is an environment in which things grow. If you take a healthy seed and plant it in unhealthy soil, even a healthy seed is going to struggle to reach its fullest potential. If you take a healthy person who knows their stuff and gets results, and put them in an unhealthy culture, that healthy person is going to find it harder than necessary to produce what they otherwise could in a healthier environment.

Too many good people are stuck in environments—poor organisational cultures—that are making it way too hard for them to be at their best.

The third metaphor is that of an operating system. Our world is swamped with “apps” that can do just about anything. We’re obsessed with finding new apps that will make some part of our life better, more fun, more efficient (or maybe that’s just my impression!). Apps are the things we see and interact with most.

In business, our “apps” are the things we see—our product, our strategy, our systems, our processes. We spend a lot of time tweaking them, improving them, upgrading them, replacing them. When apps “crash” (i.e. don’t work properly or as intended), there can be two reasons: The app itself is poorly designed, or it’s running on an inferior operating system.

In my nearly 20 years of working with businesses and business leaders, I have observed too much emphasis placed on the apps, and nowhere near enough emphasis placed on the operating system—almost forgetting that it exists. They go about the tweaking, improving, upgrading, and replacing the apps without realising, in many cases, that no app will ever run effectively on a dysfunctional operation system.

Your organisational culture is your operating system that enables your apps—your product, strategy, systems, and processes. If it isn’t finely tuned, expect crashes!

Before we move on to why culture matters, let’s be clear about one more thing: what culture isn’t.

Culture is not employee engagement, and it’s not employee satisfaction. I highlight these two because they are very commonly measured in organisations and confused with culture. Engagement and satisfaction are effectiveness outcomes of culture—just like your financial results. They are that which your culture produces, not the culture itself.

Culture causes engagement, satisfaction, and financial results, and is therefore a lead indicator. If you are only looking at engagement and satisfaction on the people side of your business, you are navigating by lag indicators, which is about as helpful as navigating your car by looking in the rear-view mirror.

Is it helpful to look in the rear-view mirror at times? Of course! But if it’s the only place you’re looking, you’re probably going to crash some time soon.