Recipe for a potent culture

If I had to define company culture, I’d say it’s pretty much like the mojo of Austin Powers. It fuels his supernatural abilities and in order to steal it, you’d have to build a time machine to go back to the 1960s.

Culture is a much more solid investment than processes or expertise. It can’t be imitated in the short run and it provides guidance in uncharted territory where current practices just won’t cut it.

Culture’s not a big investment, either. Mostly it just needs some mental space in the heads of leaders, a place where the causal relationships between culture, behavior and business results can be entertained.

Easier said than done if you’re not conditioned to pick up on culture in different behaviors. A good way to train this skill is to ask yourself, every time you hear about an incident (good or bad) – what kind of culture is this incident evidence of?

Based on these insights, you can easily create a map of values and attitudes that serve your strategy better than others. These are the attitudes you’ll start looking for in future hires – and rewarding in the everyday work of your current colleagues.

The map will also help you recognize people who don’t align with the culture. Don’t fool yourself: a cultural misfit cannot be fixed, because people really don’t change that much.

If you saw the second Austin Powers movie, you know what to do with a character disguised as your significant other while only aiming to kill you and then self-destruct. Get rid of them, grieve briefly, then proceed to the lobby nude and celebrate being single again.

Extra attention is needed in situations where someone suggests introducing a new mandatory process, procedure or a rule as a direct response to incident(s). Hear that? That’s the sound of your culture failing. Some rules and regulations will always remain, but most of the potential chaos in organizations should be tamed by strong culture.

New rules are just a patch that stops the bleeding while you figure out the cure for the culture. Put a “best before” tag on the patches and ask yourself, “How could I achieve a situation where this procedure would be obsolete?” Then make it happen, even if it seems impossible at first.

It pays to have blind faith when beating impossible odds. Blind faith is fuelled by stupidity and stubbornness.Those are good instruments to accelerate cultural change. Find others who are as “stupid” as you and be vocal about your dreams together. Ask “What if?” and see what happens.

I’ve been part of a team who dreamed of the things that Helmes is today. At some point it seemed impossible and we must have seemed stupid. We were stubborn when people tried to talk sense into us. It’s better and more powerful to be stupid together.

Raul wrote in the Agile 2.0 article that the best time to work on company culture was years ago. I’d add, on a more positive note, that the next best time is now 🙂