The Gateway Arch in St. Louis has incited over half a billion dollars in surrounding construction since it was erected. It’s one of the most visited man-made attractions on the planet bringing over four million visitors annually. Visitors who spend a great deal of money. It’s also one of the most recognized cityscapes on the planet and an architectural wonder whose construction was amazingly accurate.
And yet, it was fought tooth and nail along the way. There were people protesting the use of public funds during such a difficult time in the country. Leaflets were distributed to congress opposing the memorial. Lawsuits were filed by taxpayers. Editorials were written in papers denouncing the project. Racially charged issues between the unions caused shutdowns. In a nutshell, it was anything but easy.
Organizational culture, or rather a focus on constantly improving organizational culture, often faces similar issues. If your viewpoint on the world is short term and at a lower ‘altitude’, then spending time, energy, and money on something like organizational culture may seem like a complete and utter waste of time. At best it will seem like a “nice to have” but not a “need to have”.
If you run a marketing department, why share part of your time and budget towards improving culture? You could put that money towards ‘real’ work and turn it into sales right?
We perpetuate these silo’d viewpoints for two reasons:
- The “it’s not my job” reason. If your job is marketing, then that’s your focus. If cultural aspects are not part of what you’re measured on then you’re not going to spend time on it.
- Most organizational structures do not have an effective way of distributing and managing initiatives that need to be pervasive across an organization. There is rarely a role in place to ensure it moves forward and that each department/division also sees culture and shared vision as a part of their responsibility. This is why most organizations with great cultures evolved organically with founder-led organizations. While those organizations are to be commended for retaining such a culture (it’s easy to lose a culture when you scale), it’s those organizations who evolve positive cultures where one doesn’t currently exist that face the real challenges.
If we raise the viewpoint to a higher altitude it’s clear from numerous studies how significant an impact culture has on the success, effectiveness, and longevity of an organization. Particularly organizations with a high percentage of knowledge workers.
This isn’t a problem of ‘belief’ in the power of culture, it’s a problem of education on implementation (how do I go about evaluating my culture and changing it) and of performance measurement (I’d love to work on my culture, but I’m not measured by my success in that area, thus it’s not prioritized and I have no time to spend on it).
Managers are being asked to function in a whirlwind of conflicting ideas where social business is concerned. The ‘old way’ and the ‘new way’ are butting heads:
- Be more collaborative…but don’t give your people any time to do so
- Be more agile…but make sure you get approval before doing anything
- Be more adaptable…but conform to existing processes that you’re not empowered to change
- Be more open…but don’t say anything that could get us into trouble
- Be more innovative…but put your suggestions into a box and maybe we’ll read it in isolation later
I get it, I do. This is what SideraWorks helps company with every day and you’re right, these are conflicting messages that bounce around inside of a company in transition. But one thing that helps is to remember you’re building your own version of the Gateway Arch, your culture. It’s not going to be easy. People are going to fight against it, they are going to struggle to see things from the big picture view while they are being measured on the smaller picture of day to day operations. It will be frustrating watching people try and retrofit old processes into new models.
You need to be able to take that 30,000 foot viewpoint to see how everyone benefits long term, as well as that sea level viewpoint from the trenches where you have to make the world keep turning every day. There are many ways to make this process of change easier (thank goodness, otherwise I’d be out of a job) but there is no way to make it easy. It takes persistence, it takes passion, it takes leadership, and there is no magic wand.
But, the payoffs are HUGE and the internal opportunities open up dramatically for both the individual and the company. I’m not talking about ‘soft’ payoffs like happier employees, although those are great, but ‘hard’ payoffs like the impact is has on bottom line financial performance.
You can be the one with expansive vision building the memorial to help the entire city (or organization in this case), or you can fight for your narrow vision of the world right up until the point where that city crumbles around you. Like it or not, you’re part of a larger ecosystem, and without everyone dedicating some time to the health of the whole that ecosystem will eventually fail. It doesn’t matter if it’s a country, a city, a business, a department, or simply a household. It will fail.
Culture determines whether your workforce increases in capability over time (as you attract more talented people), whether your strategic partnerships flourish (as partners select you over your competitor and you can demand better terms), and whether customer advocacy can take hold in a lasting way (as your resulting products and customer service improve).
Whether you lead your organization, or you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, attitudes matter. People want to be more than a ‘resource’, they want to work for more than just money, they want to buy from companies that have a purpose that goes beyond just profit margins. What’s your Gateway Arch, your vision? Is it isolated to the boardroom or is it culturally pervasive and being lived in the trenches? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below
Matt Ridings - @techguerilla