Organizational Culture – please don’t get too wound up over it


If you listen to certain VCs and CEOs active on social media – you might come to a conclusion that the existential threat to their companies is “culture” ( or lack there of). It’s also largely silly.

Most touristy places I have visited have some kind of “cultural immersion” program – where you are exposed to their food , music , dress etc in a short time . At the end of which – you get a glimpse of some things that may entertain you , but you still don’t know much about that culture . Eating spaghetti doesn’t make me Italian , even if expertly cooked by Mario Battali. Recently at a sales training event , the trainer confidently  exclaimed “I know how you Europeans feel – I lived there for 5 years”. There was a collective groan from my European colleagues in response which amused me to no end.

Culture is extremely complex – and if you are not an anthropology major , you probably have not spent sufficient time understanding what constitutes it . I spent some time reading about it – and it gave me a headache .

It takes a significant amount of time and effort to be part of a culture . Seeing it from outside and living it from the inside are two vastly different things . I have lived in USA for 15 years – but it would be outrageously wrong if I claimed to have a full grip of American culture . Similarly I am amused when I hear American friends say “I love India and Indian food – your chicken tikka masala and garlic nan is the yummiest meal I ever had . And I was stunned by the beauty of Taj Mahal” .  ( Chicken tikka masala is mostly a dish invented by North Indian chefs who moved to the Western Hemisphere , and designed for western taste buds – we don’t eat it in India . And I have not seen a garlic nan in India at any house . Finally – Taj is amazing , but it also stands out because there are many unsightly things around it that you might find hard to deal with if you lived there ) . 

The first time I heard a serious discussion of culture at work was only a few years ago . I was never too interested in a detailed look at it when I was in the earlier stages of my career . That particular discussion was along the lines of “we need to work on the culture – it looks rather different from the awesome culture we grew up in” .  

They were referring to a time 15 – 20 years ago, where it was a young team of mostly males , all whites , all MBAs with engineering degrees . Their managers were quite similar to them – just older and wealthier for the most part.  The team we were worried about was diverse , not all MBAs and not looking anywhere similar to the managers on any aspect . Why exactly were they worried ? I didn’t know then – and I still can’t put my finger on it today .

And then there was this CEO I know who said “let’s spend part of our next offsite defining our culture . I keep hearing that the company culture has changed quite a bit”. He was leading a young company that was doubling in size every year – which meant 

1. It is hard to put a finger on a culture that has only existed for few years . Too young to have a specific culture to begin with.

2. Half the team is new at any given point . Culture – in a company or country – evolves by mixing new with old  . It’s not static . I can barely recognize the my hometown in India these days . They drink capouccino and lattes today ( there was only coffee – regular “kappi” – when I lived there ). 

3. Can you define and implement culture top down ?  No – and you can’t do it by hanging slogan filled banners either . Was Roman culture created by the Ceasar and his senate by a royal decree ? 

What about the big companies that have been around for decades like GE or IBM ? Well – they probably have had good times and bad times in those decades . Which means they also had employees and managers who worried about culture changes periodically as market transitions happened . 

Does all this mean that culture is unimportant ? No certainly not – it is part of our identity as corporate citizens, and hence is important . All I am saying is – just don’t get too wound up about it . 

Embrace the idea that despite your strong desire to direct it in a centralized and top down way, it will grow in largely unpredictable ways. A culture has subcultures – even a small state like Kerala (where I was born and raised ) have three or four distinct sub cultures. So why do we expect that a one size fits all culture will ever exist that covers the existing fairly stable engineering team and the fairly new and fast changing sales team ? 

Culture is built on people . Treat people well and give them the freedom to do their jobs , and be transparent to the extent you can . And change your approach as you learn what is working and what is not . Maybe if you do those little things – you will have a culture that you are comfortable with. It’s a “maybe” – don’t waste your energy trying to design something that was never meant to be designed . 

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One thought on “Organizational Culture – please don’t get too wound up over it

  1. Having worked at companies with “over engineering”, “abusive”, “daddy is always right”, “fast follower”, and worked for 100’s of others, understanding culture is critical even if it is nebulous as “love” and as changing as the seasons. It does start at the top, but that only defines the potential. Who gets hired, how success and failure are handled, and rewards, etc. are part of achieving or failing that potential. I don’t know how to change it, how to make it, but I know running counter to it often leads to failure.

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