Saturday 31 May 2014

A brief lesson on company culture and local optimum

Culture governs what happens when the CEO isn't in the room - or something like that - is one of my favorite little soundbites.  Like all the most profound things I collect I'm not responsible for its genesis and, after a brief google search, I can't definitively pin down a source.  So I'm in the academically-uncomfortable zone of having to leave a quote uncredited... shiver...

I believe in principles and purpose guiding the actions of independent thinkers over prescribed activities and traversing an entirely predetermined course to an arbitrary long term goal (which discourages learning and responding to the environment).

The behavioural norms established in any collection of individuals will either enable or constrain that freedom.  That is why company culture is important.

At this point it is probably worth noting that I'm not making an argument for one leadership philosophy being inherently superior to another, I think there are many organizational pursuits which are well suited to the repeatable (ie low variation by design) and predictable activities yielded by closely micromanaging highly prescriptive processes.  I simply argue that culture happens, whether you actively choose it or not, and you always benefit from understanding your nature and actively creating a culture within which it will be the healthiest.  In the creative and scientific fields I usually act I have a formula that works; based on learning loops, some good old AMP, and not trying to tell people smarter than I am what to do.
Like most people, my first few executive roles were the first chance I had to run things however I wanted, to really test my values in the real world without compromise.  As a potentially unsafe generalisation, you pretty much get to set up your department/division/whatever however you see fit.

And so I did.  And I wrought most excellent, high performing teams, who were quick to adopt and enrich ideas and then turn those ideas into some remarkably successful products.  And we all loved every second of our time together, and we always left on Friday smarter than we arrived on Monday.

That was the outcome I'd hoped for, and I was glad to see some of the principles I held dear proven in the dispassionate and indifferent real world; where the strength of feeling you have for your ideas has zero influence on how effective they are.

But that wasn't the lesson:

I had created these cultures as microcosms within larger organizations which had dissimilar global cultures.  I was fooled for a long time - because it worked so well with only a little friction at the edges - but the real test is what happens when you're no longer there to perpetuate it.  To keep this kind of microcosm going within an incompatible host requires constant force to protect the values and establish/defend the space for creativity and (critically) failure.  You can do it, and you'll achieve what you want to achieve, but all systems normalize over time and without the constant force entropy kicks in fast.

One of the things leadership is about is creating lasting change, a journey that is bigger than yourself and continues with or without you, so if you're serious about culture and you want to make a sustainable difference, then you need to infect the host (or just be the CEO!).  You can use your microcosm to prove the effectiveness of a different set of behaviors but, if you can't cause that change to ripple outwards, then it will most certainly revert when you take yourself out of the situation.

And, no matter how new you are in a role and how difficult it is to imagine moving on, you will.  Unless you suck.  Great people always move onwards and upwards; it is so with your teams (and if you're a good boss then you will encourage and enable it) and it is so with yourself (and if you have a good boss he or she will encourage and enable it).

Think about what you'll leave behind, and how that will be perpetuated without your influence.