Can Culture Eat Strategy for Breakfast?

I came across this statement which said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It resonated with me and I thought of writing a blog post based on my experience and learning’s on how organization’s go about identifying, building, measuring and communicating their culture.

We have learnt a lot about strategy and there is a lot of experience, academic research and content around it. However, in relative comparison to strategy, culture as a subject needs to be understood a lot better. From my experience and learning, I would suggest that “Culture is an Organizational Capability” There are four big buckets of organizational capabilities and most organizations have traditionally focused on the three big buckets; “People”, “Processes” and “Technology” the fourth bucket “Culture” is probably yet not focused upon much. Most progressive organizations and their capability building models that I have seen (whilst working for some top companies and of other benchmark companies practices) have figured out well how to identify, build and measure capabilities in the first three buckets and not so much yet in the “Culture” bucket.

To begin with it helps tremendously if you first agree within your organization that next to People, Processes and Technology the fourth bucket of Capabilities is “Culture” Once you agree then your capability building framework will require you to look at “Culture Building” in a holistic manner. Some may argue and say that “Culture” is a sub-bucket of “People”, as people are the ones who construct, live, represent and communicate an organization’s culture. It’s not an invalid argument, but from my perspective culture goes beyond just people (Behaviors and Style), for example it involves the ways of working, physical environment and design of the workplace, social mechanisms and rituals of an organization, stories that are discussed etc. Hence it may be immensely helpful to look at “Culture” as something beyond just people capabilities (knowledge, skills, competencies, behaviors and attitudes).

Culture is a modern history concept based on a term first used in classical antiquity by the Roman orator Cicero “cultura animi” (cultivation of the soul).

However, one of the many definitions of organizational culture is the behavior of humans who are part of an organization and the meanings that the people attach to their actions. Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling. Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. And now you can see the rationale why some argue that Culture is all about just people. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organizational_culture

Anyway my perspective is a bit different, but it strongly builds on this traditional definition.

How to go about building a strong organization culture, which, despite the sustained uncertainty of the economic and social environment and the ever changing strategy – can become a major pillar of strength. My 10 recommended practical steps for leaders and organisations are as follows: 

1)    The first step should be to assess and identify what your current organizational culture is. It takes finding out what your culture is and how you culture is perceived by internal (employees) external people (customers, talent, investors etc). There are various tools and methodologies that are there to identify your culture. One of the most powerful techniques is facilitated focus group discussions, which are similar to identifying the brand identity of the company. Also you need to asses if your culture is something that’s kept in mind by people when designing strategies, processes, systems, workplaces, policies etc

2)    Ensure that there is a clear articulation and shared understanding of the organizations vision, mission and values. Then compare the “Current Culture” and clearly articulate the “Required Culture” for achieving your vision and living the values. Do a proper gap analysis and planning of “FROM” – “TO” This is most effectively done via the process of LSIP – Large Scale Interaction Process. If this is done in isolation and only at the top of the organisation or just by the HR function it well could be a false start.

3)    Avoid evolving complicated culture building frameworks, keep things simple, build on and align to existing capability building framework of the company, with clear alignment to the vision, mission and values of the company. Having a clear plan of initiatives and activities to build culture is more important than having just frameworks and models. Ensure the the main components of the culture you are building are well integrated into each and every strategy, process, system, practice, policy design of your company.

4)    Integrate culture building strongly with the company’s existing learning practice and function, design and detail initiatives and activities (learning offerings, coaching, mentoring etc) and make them leader led. Avoid too much of classroom and e-learning offerings around culture building – leverage the 70-20-10 learning principle. Don’t make culture building a separate and an isolated activity.

5)    Whilst designing and activating culture building interventions, don’t focus only on soft part – people and their behaviors and styles. Focus also on designing and changing the hard part – workplace design, policies, social mechanism’s (meetings and its structure, rewards and recognition platforms, etc), hierarchy (Org structure and its levels), rituals (how is success celebrated, how is news communicated, etc).

6)    Make Leaders lead the culture building, but make everyone responsible and accountable for it and celebrate reward and recognize success stories and role models. Don’t make the mistake of making just HR responsible for Culture building, its every leader’s responsibility. HR should facilitate the process.

7)    Have a clear measurement methodology, process, tools and techniques for knowing and understanding how progress is being made and what needs to be further improved. Custom designed surveys and NPS (Net Promoter Score) are two powerful methodologies.

8)    If your organization culture is your strength and a differentiator, then make sure you have a good communication plan (internal and external) to further strengthen and build on your employer branding.

9)    Use your culture building plan to profile, attract and develop talent which will help you strengthen and build the riht culture. Dovetailing your culture building plan with the talent assessment, development and acquisition strategy of the company is very important.

10) Last but not the least, culture building needs investing of some money and lots of leadership commitment and their personal time. Without this investment you will achieve little.

In my opinion and perspective, if you get the above 10 steps right, you will be able to create a culture in your organization, which will eat your competitors strategy for breakfast!!

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Here is some content that, I have aggregated from my favorite HBR Blogs on Culture, I have learnt a lot from reading them and critiquing them in my own mind. Hope you enjoy reading them too:

Michael Watkins on “What Is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care?” suggests that, If you want to provoke a vigorous debate, start a conversation on organizational culture. While there is universal agreement that (1) it exists, and (2) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations, there is little consensus on what organizational culture actually is, never mind how it influences behavior and whether it is something leaders can change…. read on http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/05/what-is-organizational-culture/

John Coleman on “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture” suggests that, what makes a culture? Each culture is unique and myriad factors go into creating one, but I’ve observed at least six common components of great cultures. Isolating those elements can be the first step to building a differentiated culture and a lasting organization….  read on http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/05/six-components-of-culture/

Carolyn Dewar and Scott Keller on “Three Steps to a High-Performance Culture” suggest that, senior executives tend to think about corporate culture as a topic that’s hard to measure and hard to change. As a result, many choose not to invest in it despite all the evidence that, when skillfully managed, culture can be a powerful and enduring source of competitive advantage…. read on http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/01/three-steps-to-a-high-performa/

Deidre H. Campbell on “What Great Companies Know About Culture” suggests that, even in this unprecedented business environment, great leaders know they should invest in their people. Those companies who are committed to a strong workplace culture tend to perform well, and now they are featured prominently in a new ranking recently released by Great Place to Work Institute. Among the top performers on the 2011 World’s Best Multinational Companies list are culturally-strong technology companies such as Microsoft, NetApp, SAS, and Google….read on http://blogs.hbr.org/2011/12/what-great-companies-know-abou/

Amy C. Edmondson on The Three Pillars of a Teaming Culture” suggests that, today’s leaders must build a culture where teaming is expected and begins to feel natural, and this starts with helping everyone to become curious, passionate, and empathic. She says, building the right culture in an era of fast-paced teaming, when people work on a shifting mix of projects with a shifting mix of partners, might sound challenging – if not impossible. But, in my experience, in the most innovative companies, teaming is the culture….read on http://t.co/5wkbbaou2G

Jason Sylva on “The Culture Cycle” James L. Heskett‘s book The Culture Cycle describes how an effective culture can account for up to half of the differential in performance between organizations in the same business. Heskett discusses how to calculate the economic value of culture through the “Four Rs” of referrals, retention, returns to labor, and relationships with customers… read on http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/06/culture-cycle-the-unseen-force/

Leading in times of turbulent change: @debjani_ghosh_ MD – SMG, Intel SA on #PhilipsHRtalks

http://t.co/giLQTjrJ77

#PhilipsHRtalks is a unique and innovative open source learning platform created by Philips India HR Team. Renowned and accomplished thought leaders are invited on this platform to share their ideas and knowledge and video recordings on their talk is posted on YouTube on the Philips India Channel.

Debjani Ghosh @debjani_ghosh_ was invited to speak on this platform and her pearls of wisdom are encapsulated in this video. Thank you Debjani!!

How to launch a career in a sluggish job market.

Campus Journos

Globally weak economy, sliding Rupee, high inflation, policy paralysis, upcoming elections, etc, etc have slowed the growth in India and there are clear signs and forecasts that macro-economic outlook and GDP growth for 2014 will remain modest if not weak. Companies therefore, will be cautious in 2014 and are likely to focus more on managing and controlling costs as opposed to making big investments. As a result, hiring forecasts for 2014 might remain weak. Wise and progressive companies will continue to “invest cautiously” in hiring fresh engineering and MBA talent, however, there will be an unfavorable effect on the Engineering and MBA talent pool graduating in the summer of 2014.

How to best handle your career take-off in a sluggish job market, wherein fewer good opportunities will present themselves and chances of getting your dream job may not be that bright?

I have seen this about three times earlier in the past 24 years of my career where a major economic crisis has affected the fresh graduates (from a career take-off point of view). I have also learnt and observed how; some very smart students have dealt with it effectively. Based on my observations and experience, my 5 point advice is as follows:

1)      Don’t blame or doubt yourself and stay positive: It’s important to understand that this situation is not your creation and you are just a little bit unlucky to be graduating in these tough times. Stay emotionally strong and keep smiling. If you didn’t get a Pre-placement Offer or Pre-placement Interview from the organization where you interned as an MBA student this year – don’t get negative or cynical about that organization. In fact, thank that organization for what you learnt there and build and maintain good relations. Coz when the tough times are over that same organization could re-consider you. Most important when you are being hired by another company, your references will be checked with the company you interned in!!

 “Get going. Move forward. Aim High. Plan a takeoff. Don’t just sit on the runway and hope someone will come along and push the airplane. It simply won’t happen. Change your attitude and gain some altitude. Believe me, you’ll love it up here.” – Donald Trump

2)      Re-set and refine your goals and objectives: If you are amply clear that your dream job in your dream company isn’t going to happen – then re-configure your near term goals and objectives and identify and prepare yourself for the next best thing that’s possible and is lurking as an opportunity. Very important to have a Plan-B and more important to activate it.

“Re-setting goals and objectives doesn’t mean you are compromising with your vision and aspiration, in fact it means you are committed to achieving it” – iYash

3)      Don’t depend on your campus placement process alone: I have often said this before, the controlled and traditional methods of placing MBA students by running a campus placement process which is managed by a body of students and the school management is a big deterrent to the students prospects – coz, bright students are robbed of their choices and are forced into accepting offers from limited choice for the sake of placing other weaker students. Also the Indian MBA School’s campus placement process is not designed for sluggish times. It’s a socialist approach to ensure that everyone gets a job (assuming many companies are out there wanting to recruit from that campus) and then the college can boast of a placement record, instead of boasting of a top-class learning environment. Anyways, don’t depend on it and challenge it and change it, if you can!!

“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” – Mary Engelbreit

4)      Leverage Social Media: Be present on Social Media Platforms, especially the ones that are used by companies to identify and recruit talent. My top three platform recommendations are LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Make good profiles and be present on them with the objectives of connecting, sharing and learning. In addition leverage on the connections you have already built with executives and friends you have made in the corporate world and seek their help in sighting and applying for the right opportunities.

“Social media is your opportunity to reach a massive number of people with transparency, honesty, and integrity.” – Brian E. Boyd Sr., Social Media for the Executive

5)      Value what you get: Whatever opportunity you land up with – value it and give your best to the company that hires you, work hard and learn. If you don’t value what you get and keep thinking about why you didn’t get what you sought dearly, it won’t help. There is nothing such as a second grade organization. Leaders, employees and their values make an organization and if you are going to be one of them, then make it a top-notch company. Work with total commitment and passion and you won’t go wrong in making a career!!

“Anyone can dabble, but once you’ve made that commitment, your blood has that particular thing in it, and it’s very hard for people to stop you.”- Bill Cosby

Wishing all the MBA students on Indian campuses (who will graduate in 2014) all the very best and now that you are experiencing the real world and its challenges, I would encourage you have a constructive conversation with your junior batch students and share with them your wisdom and importance of summer internships, which they are seeking right now for the summer on 2014. Most points mentioned above are applicable to them as well.

“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” -Joshua J. Marine

Astachal and My Art and Habit of Self-introspection

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I enjoyed this view almost every evening for about a decade (from 1975 to 1985) at the Gwalior Fort in India (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwalior). I was then studying at the prestigious boarding school in India, The Scindia School Gwalior (http://www.scindia.edu/). Whilst at school we had a very important and a beautiful ritual, which was the evening prayer congregation of fellow students. This congregation used to take place at “Astachal” the amphitheater of the school. The setting was very serene, scenic and simply beautiful, the amphitheater has a large size statue of Mahatma Gandhi which further overlooks the city of Gwalior with the hills and the sky in distant background (http://www.scindia.edu/asthachal.php). The timing of the evening prayer congregation at Astachal was usually synced with the sunset time of the season.

What I learnt and imbibed as a young student at Astachal was something unique, which serves me well even today and its become my daily habit of doing silent introspection. Whilst introspecting, I look within myself, get in touch with my own feelings and emotions and I ponder over my day; what went well, what didn’t go well, what I did for and to others, what others did for and to me, what made me laugh, happy, exited, sad, etc, etc. I hand over my sad and bad part of the day to my god and during the process of introspection I make resolutions, promises to self and plans for the next day. Every evening after the introspection, I feel the lightest and second best. The day after when i wake up and get ready for the day, I feel the best!!

Since I seem to have achieved some success (at-least my wife and children think so – coz we have grown up together!!) in my career. For the past one decade or so I have been operating as an senior executive in the corporate world – the pressures and stress has only increased and trust me, its always high. There are various things that help me deal with the pressure and stress and this ritual and habit of silent introspection that I imbibed at the Astachal is my daily antidote.

Today I live and work based out of three cities and two continents, every month at a minimum I travel to at least four countries in four different continents, I have a beautiful family that I love, a terrific team that I care for and a fantastic career that I value and to keep it like that, I have to work very hard, make efforts to stay physically and mentally fit and be sincere and true to myself and others. I guess, everybody needs a spiritual fix these days and may be this is my fix, which, I found and imbibed at the Astachal. Last week, when I was having a session with my coach and mentor, I was made to realize that this silent introspection habit is a strength and not many can do it effectively. When asked, how I do it well and effectively. I answered and gave the entire credit to my school, my fellow students, teachers and the ritual I picked up at the Astachal 28 years ago!! so what does this silent introspection help me achieve? it is helps me achieve the five following things:

1) In a meditative form in just 20 mins, I can re-cap my whole day and assess the positive and negative happenings and the related emotions (today not at Astachal but on a flight or in the back seat of my car). I get in touch with my feelings and emotions everyday. Hence, I let go off my negative feelings and emotions every day and I don’t carry them forward.

2) I feel chuffed about my positive feelings and emotions and plan to make them a part of my next day. Helps me stay positive and bright.

3) I apologies to people without any ego, if I have caused them grief and I thank and appreciate people who have helped me and made me feel good, and on almost a daily basis.

4) Most important, I am ready and prepared to have courageous conversation with people who have given me grief and have tried to erode my esteem. I don’t take it lying down!

5) I have a very peaceful and a light evening and enjoy my drink :) and go to bed with reduced stress and pressure.

I dedicate this blog to Mr Chatterjee, our school music teacher who used to often lead us at the Astachal and sing songs such as “Door kahin jab din dhal jaye…” and “Surya asth ho gaya, gagan mast ho gaya…” I still know all these songs by heart. Simply beautiful!! :)

Here are a few more pics of Astachal (Courtesy some fellow school boy who clicked them and put them on the web. Thanks mate!!)
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