There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle. ~Deepak Chopra
My wife and daughter are addicted to jigsaw puzzles, usually the 1,000 to 2,000 piece monstrosities that look like a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. I must confess I don’t have the patience or the desire to sit for hours hunched over a table putting a puzzle together. But they love it and every Christmas holiday a new mega-puzzle appears and takes over the sitting room table.
Whether you like, love or hate mega-puzzles, they do present an excellent analogy to better understand corporate culture.
The Important Pieces?
Which pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are the most important? Or are they all equally important in getting to the finished product?
Naturally, all the pieces are important since an almost finished puzzle with one missing is very unsatisfying. Like a company that makes a good profit, has killer products, and yet employees hate working there. Very unsatisfying.
The good news about those who love jigsaw puzzles is that no one wants to walk away from a 1000 piece almost complete puzzle with one missing. Those who love puzzles are striving for excellence, not “almost complete”. Everyone starts looking around, on the floor, under the sofa, in the corner of the box, everywhere to find the missing piece to make the effort worthwhile.
Much of the stress and angst we feel inside companies is the willingness of management and leadership to stop striving for excellence just because goals are met or the profit margin in good. The P&L looks good, but we know the picture isn’t complete. Something doesn’t feel right. We are missing some of the pieces of excellence. Perhaps it is innovation, perhaps trust and respect. In the case of modern banking, huge profits are made while tolerating overly risky and even unethical behaviour. Success somehow feels hollow and unfulfilling.
Corporate culture, like the mega-puzzle, is made up of many elements; leadership behaviours, customer service behaviours, employee engagement, subcultures, routine work behaviours, trust, accountability. The list goes on.
And they are all important in building and sustaining a successful company. Successful for employees, customers, shareholders, communities, the planet.
But not all the ingredients of corporate culture are equally important at any one given time. Coming back to the jigsaw puzzle analogy, early on the most important ingredients in getting the puzzle started are the edge pieces. The first task of any real puzzle person (not puzzling person) is to get the border finished. Thus finding and fitting the edge pieces becomes the critical task for eventual success. Completing the border gives the puzzle structure, definition, dimension, shape, a boundary within which to work. Later on, the pieces that connect one set of shapes to another become critical to the overall development of the finished picture.
In the early days or years of a company, not all elements of corporate culture are equally important. Obviously the business model is critical, but the less tangible culture elements of purpose, mission, hiring profiles, ambition, training, brand identity, leadership values and behaviours are vitally important in setting in place a strong and sustainable foundation for success. Later, as the company matures, other elements of the culture, such as innovation, respect for diversity, open communication and trust play an important role in sustainability and performance.
What are the critical elements of your corporate culture at this time in your business life-cycle? Sustainable success comes from a strong culture foundation.
Thanks for joining the dialogue.
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
PS: John also writes thriller novels