Why culture should be top of mind

Why culture should be top of mind

Barbapapa_Yi-Chien ChangWhenever I prepare a speech on a topic related to corporate culture, I pause to wonder why we do not give it the respect and attention it deserves. After all, if one of the world’s premier football managers calls team spirit a flower that must be cared for daily, and if legendary business thinker Peter Drucker tells us that culture will almost always trump strategy, why do so few organizations have specific plans to keep it top of mind?

Most businesses I know spend large chunks of time building a strategic plan. Remarkably few of them allocate significant time or resources to devising a corporate “culture plan”. In the past two decades, I have been a keynote speaker at countless offsite strategic planning meetings; never have I participated in a corporate offsite whose entire focus was the corporate culture plan. Again, I would ask: If culture eats strategy for breakfast, why does it remain such a small part of our broader agenda?

Perhaps one of the reasons we focus on strategy and shy away from putting culture on the organizational to-do list is simply that strategic planning is concrete. It is a “hard” skill. Business schools teach courses in how to write strategic plans, and major consulting firms make their living helping enterprises with this type of endeavor. At least to some extent, we can measure our success in meeting the specific goals of our plan from one year to the next.

Culture, on the other hand, is “soft”, amorphous, and difficult to get our hands around. Success in building our culture is difficult to gauge with concrete metrics. Thus, we tend to talk about it, but we struggle with the notion of building a specific plan.

Nevertheless, we should not allow culture’s “softer” nature to dissuade us from giving it significant space in our planning sessions. The fact that it is intangible certainly does not diminish its critical impact on everyone in an organization, and on everything the organization seeks to accomplish.

In my public speaking and in my engagements with clients, I strive to present a clear and straightforward view of how I see group culture, along with my thoughts about why a majority of companies do far too little to foster it, and ideas for what we can do to build a positive team spirit in any type of group.

The emphasis I place on the cultural aspects of an organization does not at all mean that I consider strategy unimportant. Of course, strategic planning is necessary and useful. However, in my view, strategy and culture should be equal partners in a firm, and most organizations fail to give culture the weight it merits. So, I tend to focus on how we can build and maintain cultures that enable our people and groups to flourish.

My personal notion of culture: When I consider the concept of community, or when I reflect on extraordinary group cultures, I envision people sitting around a campfire. Much as human beings did in prehistoric times, members of the corporate “tribe” share stories and rituals. In particular, they tell stories of collective identity. Such tales encapsulate who we are, what we stand for, and why we do things the way we do.

It is in this type of story of collective identity that a society defines itself and expresses its values. As such, I have come to believe that a culture is a group of individuals who share the same stories and find meaning in these stories.

In forthcoming posts, I will provide examples of stories of collective identity that promote strong group cultures, along with some advice about how any manager can use this powerful tool to improve a team’s shared vision and performance.

Image: Flickr-user Yi-Chien Chang


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