Why Organizational Culture is a Monster

By Jon Miller Published on August 20th, 2013

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Organizational culture matters because culture makes the difference between whether we execute good ideas or we do not. Good ideas abound, but the world sorely lacks in evidence for the increase in the adoption and long-term follow through on these good ideas. In fact there are more good ideas today spreading faster than we can learn and apply them. Yet despite information technology accelerators and social networks, I fear that we are fundamentally no more prepared to adopt good ideas new or old. There is nothing new of substance within lean startup, six sigma, big data, lean kanban, lean manufacturing or any of the buzzwords immediately preceding them. In food processing terms, the formulation, packaging, marketing and distribution of these ideas are new but they are the same dish. This is not to take anything away from the efforts to formulate, package and market old ideas to suit new audiences. It is important work. As the saying goes, “every generation thinks they invented OPEX.”
But the fact that the old ideas were not good enough to be accepted, implemented and become integrated into common business practice decades ago causes worry. Listening to lean startup conference presentations reminds me of QC Circle presentations with their talk of experiments, data and focus groups. QC Circles certainly suffer from poor naming, manufacturing-oriented branding, and lack of a young, hip and social media-savvy community to promote it. Yet before long there will be a generation that will look back on lean startup or other recent marvels and wonder as I do now about QC Circles why the idea did not take root. It is worrisome that so many great ideas, programs and movements so capable of filling gaps in human and economic development inevitably wither away. What is wrong with us?
Surgeon, writer, and public-health researcher Atul Gawande recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that there are “slow ideas”. These are simple, superior practices that even intelligent, well-meaning people adopt but slowly. Somehow it is painful to adopt these slow ideas. As ideas themselves do not have move of their own volition or possess speed, perhaps “jagged ideas” or “high friction ideas” are better names for ideas that are somehow painful for people to swallow, digest and integrate. Whether we think of it as pain or friction, slow adoption of good ideas is a problem if we care about doing more good in our short lifetimes. From a brain science point of view, making new habits and rewiring neural connections takes energy and is painful. To the human body evolved to conserve energy and maximize chances of survival and procreation, adopting new ideas that are slow, jagged or high friction may seem to be a waste of energy. As the person suffering from a bad case of satisfaction once said, “I’m not lazy, I just really enjoy doing nothing.”
Even when there is sufficient dissatisfaction with the status quo, motivation and energy to learn and adopt good ideas, groups of humans do not always help each other out. Organizational culture is group behavior. Behavior arises from habits and how we make decisions. These arise from our deep assumptions and core beliefs. Depending on what we believe about the wider world as well as the realities of our immediate organization, we may fail to take persistent action to see good ideas through. Common objections to good ideas include “we tried it before” and “we are different” or “good idea, but they will never accept it”. These are beliefs, which regardless of their truth, generate behaviors and artifacts of culture that ultimately affect the organization’s performance.
In a word, the uptake of good ideas is slower and less complete in our organizations than the quality of these ideas would suggest because of fear. Whenever there is a basic assumption widely shared and held deeply within us that change will result in loss, pain or discomfort we behave in ways that fulfill this expectation. Although we may not always see, recognize or name it for what it is, our best laid plans are undermined by dreadful culture monster. We discuss this notion in detail, and how the continuous improvement process must be applied consciously towards creating a kaizen culture in our new book by that name. This fear is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact it is a sign we must be mindful of.
The word “monster” originates from a Latin word monstrum meaning “to warn” or “a sign”. In olden days people believed that an abnormal or dreadful animal was a divine warning of bad things to come. We can say that organizational culture is a monster also in that sense. We can expect that organizational cultures characterized by closed-mindedness, infighting, fear of blame for mistakes and so forth will bring bad things, namely an inability to adapt to changing circumstances in the market and thus worsened performance over time. A monster in this sense is neither good nor bad, but it may cause us dread. Whether we face up to the culture monster or not is our choice.
Dr. Edgar Schein writes in the excellent book The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, “…try to build on the existing cultural strengths, rather than trying to change those elements that may be weaknesses.” He also writes, “Always think first of the culture as your source of strength. It is the residue of your past successes.” While these are comforting words, I can’t fully agree, and choose instead to heed Peter Drucker’s words that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We must look at organizational culture as a monster to be respected but challenged in all cases if we are to pursue continuous improvement. Dr. Schein wisely advises not to start with the idea to change culture, but rather to solve a problem or improve performance. Whether by further leveraging cultural strengths or shoring up cultural weaknesses that are at the root of these problems, we ignore organizational culture and its portents at our own peril.
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