Business Culture and Cake Baking

Business culture can often be the hardest thing to fix. Strategies and tactics can be introduced, brands can be repositioned, structures and reporting lines can be changed, and leadership teams can be hired and fired. But culture is a whole different ball game. And for those companies that have been in business for a very long time, cultures can be embedded and ingrained to such an extent that they can be seemingly impossible to shift. For very large businesses, the challenge is usually viewed as being the time that it would take to make change happen, with the commonly (over-) used metaphor being the time it would take to turn an oil tanker.

Yet for most companies with cultural issues, if they were not able break the existing culture, everyone knows what would be likely to happen. Everybody understands that the business runs the risk of slowly (or sometimes rapidly) fading away. Often it may even seem so hard to do, that it could just feel easier to watch the business simply turn over and die. Just like witnessing the dinosaurs die out, or watching the elephants slowly saunter on over to the graveyard to use two other overused metaphors!

Business Culture and Cake Baking

Difficult indeed. However in the words of Theodore Roosevelt “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” This ‘nothing in this world worth having comes easy’ attitude makes great sense, however the quote unfortunately doesn’t go on to explain where to start or what to focus on. So, before I start exploiting the metaphors too much and talking about ‘not being able to bake a cake without cracking some eggs’, here are some of my thoughts on the matter of cultural change.

  • Business Culture comes from power, not leadership – In most instances power and leadership come from one and the same place – management – however sometimes they do not. If the leadership team have the power, then it is primarily their responsibility to initiate change, but power in business can sit in other places too. Sometimes power can come from specific business functions – I have worked for companies with sales, engineering, finance, marketing and regulatory led cultures. Power can also come from the business structure, with the degree of bureaucracy influencing the conservatism and centralisation /decentralisation of decision-making. In the book Understanding Organisations, Charles Handy identified six potential sources of power within organisations, namely Physical, Resource, Position, Expert & Personal power. For each business wanting to undergo change, these power sources need to be understood and managed as part of the process.
  • Create a common focus – If there is nothing or very few things upon which the entire business can agree, the company should consider trying to establish a common focus. This is one of the reasons why some businesses create mission, vision & value statements; however this is also something that the Promises & Commitments derived from Customer Experience work can be utilised for. As Promises & Commitments should ideally come from the voice of the customer, they can be easier for the business to agree upon than mission, vision & values, which are typically created by leadership teams. It can be easy to disagree with the opinions of management, however it is more difficult to disagree with the opinions of customers!
  • Focus first on what unites, not divides – When trying to bring about cultural change, some companies focus on trying to solve the problems and differences that exist between different parts of the business. Of course, significant differences need to be resolved; however it can be easier at first to find the things that everyone can agree upon and create common ground rather than diving headlong into problem-solving mode.
  • Break the myths – Some people within companies truly believe that the business culture is too heavily ingrained upon the company for it to change. In this regard, I have regularly heard that a business is ‘too big’ or ‘too old’. If that were true, then companies would have no option but to see themselves crumble and die. Although change can be more difficult in these types of environment, nothing is ever impossible. Multinational companies such as Aetna & Apple have both successfully undergone large-scale culture change programmes, which shows that it should be possible for anyone.
  • Create new rituals – Often business culture can be formed as a result of negative rituals. It might even be a daily ‘bitching’ session around the water fountain or coffee machine, yet these rituals can cause untold damage to the culture and morale of a business. Of course, you cannot just simply ban the bad rituals, as they are likely to pop up in other forms and places, however you can create new rituals to act as replacements to the negative ones. I’m not talking about crazy ideas such as suggestion boxes (my favourite story of a suggestion box was one that never got used for weeks and weeks after it was introduced. The very first suggestion that appeared in the box got the controlling manager very excited, only for him to find a note reading “get rid of the suggestion box”….), however I have seen other ideas work well, such as cross-functional lunches and the boss taking the team out for a drink after work.
  • Feel the fear and do it anyway – Cultural change is scary. Very few people truly relish the idea of change, as they know that even if it doesn’t bother them, it will bother others and create tension and disquiet. However we are all aware of the different models that describe the stages of change, such as Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing and Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model. All of them describe a period of pain that has to be gone through.That being said, pain and fear are often good signs. Conflict is a sign that passion still exists, and passion is an essential element in driving forward positive change. Fear and pain need to be embraced as an essential part of the change process.
  • Let go – Managers and leaders often misunderstand what their role is. I have often spoken about the dangers of managers or leaders assuming that the reason why they have climbed the ladder or gained a promotion is because they are ‘better’ than the people lower down within the organisation. The people at the front line of a business usually have a better understanding of what is wrong with that business and how to fix it. ‘Engaging employees’ has become a trite, banal and somewhat patronising phrase, however it is still a nirvana that most businesses should strive for. The challenge is how to engage employees and, in my opinion, the only real way to truly engage them is to give them control of the transformation programme. Giving control to the people doesn’t mean losing your status as a leader – quite the contrary – however most leaders are too frightened to let go. It may seem counterintuitive; however letting go is the best way of respecting employees and gaining their respect and loyalty in return.

Food for thought. Slice of cake anyone?