Getting Business Culture off the Lobby Wall and Into Action

Josh and his business development colleagues at a healthcare company that my team and I have worked with have been pounding away at a new product planning and development program for 18 months and are almost ready to launch. But corporate management is dragging its feet. It wants to wring every potential risk out of the program and keeps adding new constraints that delay the launch.

This may sound like a compliance and process problem, but in fact, it’s all about culture.  Especially in evolving companies, it’s extremely challenging to match the foundational beliefs and norms culture encompasses with the realities of moving forward in a complex and dynamic marketplace, where a host of factors test the mettle of leaders and managers every day at every level, especially the upper reaches.

As companies grow, they tend to lose touch with the culture that was initially embedded in everything they did. Reduced to a statement framed in the conference room or front lobby, culture loses its power, its role, and trust as the driving force it must be to advance the company’s purpose, vision, mission, and strategic agenda.

As Nelson Mandela has said, “Vision without action is just a dream.”

This might seem disappointing yet harmless. Not so. Culture encompasses everything an organization stands for, everything that gets expressed in the everyday thought and discourse of people in the organization as they engage with one another, to discover and advance the right moves.

Culture is part foundation and part expression. Foundationally, it’s what we stand for and where we’re headed based on certain values, principles, habits of mind, and customs. As an expression, it is fundamental to the everyday communication that provides the combined why, what and who of the planning we forge, the decisions we make, the risks we manage and the problems we solve. A well-formed culture that guides everyday thought and behavior is what gives confidence to the strategic teams that make things happen. These teams prepare for the near-term and the long-term. They persist when things don’t go well. They adapt and respond. They find the so-called third way when Plan A and Plan B crash and burn, flounder, and fail.

Josh and his team have gotten caught in the slow drag of old culture, which gets in the way of progress, blocking critical decisions, posing constraints to people working effectively, collaborating for the cause. My group and our partners in a wide range of business settings have also seen the power of strong culture as a catalyst for all kinds of growth, performance, and change initiatives. Culture is an asset. Or a liability. The greatest liability comes with culture, talent, and strategy that are out of sync.

A disconnect between culture and strategy and everything that flows from them can result in exactly the sort of conflicts and miscues we see with a range of organizations, large and small, including GE, P&G, and Boeing. Corporate strategy gets muddled, and culture gets confused. The organization gets shackled in decision making, risk management, and problem-solving.

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So how can you make sure culture doesn’t get stuck on the conference room wall or devolve into a series of empty buzzwords staring up from a very attractive but otherwise empty culture deck that individuals and teams glance at without following through on?

Ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Do we think and behave as agents of our strategy, our strategic agenda? 
  2. Do we match our planning and decision making with a focus on results?
  3. Do we think through the impact and risks of our actions on a competitive edge?
  4. Do our teams serve enterprise stewardship and broader accountability?

Ask these questions regularly and rigorously at all levels of organizational decision-making — not just every few years as tends to be the case. The answers will help you see whether and how everyday thought and behavior in your company are aligning with culture.

And if the answer to any of them is “no,” it’s time to stop and rethink before taking action.

Daniel Wolf is president and co-founder of Dewar Sloan, a consulting group focused on strategy direction, integration and execution. For more than 25 years Dewar Sloan has served hundreds of corporate, healthcare, technology and nonprofit organizations. Author of Strategic Teams and Development: The Field Book for People Making Strategy Happen and Prepared and Resolved: The Strategic Agenda for Growth, Performance and Change, Dan has held management and governance roles at Fortune 500 companies, SME ventures and in private equity ventures. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan.

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