Why Corporate Culture is more like Physics than Human Resources.


The old story of the elephant and the blind men is as poignant as ever in revealing a profound lesson:

Several blind men came across an elephant and never having seen an elephant, each had a different description based on which part of the elephant they encountered, and each believed theirs to be the true description.

For the past 30 years Corporate Culture has been described and researched by a number of different academic and business experts; each with their own version of the truth.  For those from an HR and organisation behaviour background, culture is about how people behave, the values they hold and the values stressed and promoted by management. From the culture consultants and big consulting firms, they see culture as a leadership and management issue and thus the problem with your culture is really caused by lack of alignment at the level of the senior leadership team. More recently, when social network experts started looking at corporate culture, they believe there is no single culture but instead an organisation is a collection of subcultures informally organised as social networks. And when the strategy folks think about culture, they see it as an execution issue where the culture either is an asset to help deliver the strategy, or a business risk which can block strategy execution.

One elephant, many different points of view. And each vigorously defended!

Like corporate culture today, the scientific and academic world of the 17th Century was a newton-Philosophiae-naturalis-principi-mathematicaconfusing and contradictory place until Sir Isaac Newton came along and wrote his seminal work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, (Latin for “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687. The Principia states Newton’s laws of motion, forming the foundation of classical mechanics, also Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and took an integrated approach, based on a set of fundamental principles, to explain how the physical world worked. The Principia is widely regarded as one of the most important works in the history of science since an understanding and use of these fundamental principles has led to man’s ability to explore space, split the atom and create engineering and scientific breakthroughs. Since everything works on a set of basic fundamental principles.

Principles of Corporate Culture:

I believe the concept of corporate culture also has a set of fundamental principles that, if properly understood, can be used to both explain, build and reshape corporate culture and improve organisation performance. An understanding of these fundamental principles allows us to answer a variety of culture related questions that impact business results:

  • Where do I look to find the strengths and weaknesses of our current culture?
  • What are the key levers for culture change?
  • How fast can a culture change take place?
  • What is the role of leadership in shaping and leading culture?
  • How is our current corporate culture a business risk or a barrier to strategy execution?
  • How is culture formed in the first place?
  • Why do most culture change programs fail?

These and other business related culture issues gain more clarity with an understanding of the fundamental principles of corporate culture. In a recent book, LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, many of the principles of culture are described, using modern business examples to bring them to life. Here is an annotated list of the principles of corporate culture:

  • Every organization, large or small, start-up or mature, has a culture.
  • Culture impacts performance, but figuring out exactly how is often extremely difficult.
  • Culture is either designed, or left to develop by default. Either way, you will have a culture.
  • If the overall corporate culture is ignored, it tends to break up into strong subcultures.
  • Not all elements of culture have the same impact on performance. Don’t believe in averages.
  • Leadership behavior is most impactful in determining culture in the early start-up years. Over time, peer pressure and subcultures becomes increasingly more important.
  • Most senior executives have no clue about the subcultures in their company or their influence on performance.
  • You get the culture you ignore.
  • Every day is filled with ‘coachable moments’ to help build a strong and aligned culture.
  • People don’t change their values when they enter your company, but they can change their ways of thinking and workplace behaviors to match the existing culture.
  • Culture is most easily recognized through habitual behaviors, rituals and policies.
  • Culture assessments can never measure the ‘real’ culture, only an approximation. Choose the assessment that best fits the business challenge you are trying to solve.
  • Policies and work processes are extremely strong determinants of corporate culture, because they promote repetitive behaviors.
  • A strong culture is one which best matches the strategy.
  • Weak cultures usually are a collection of strong subcultures but with no alignment or common purpose.
  • Don’t confuse a culture audit with a climate survey. You might go charging off in the wrong direction.
  • A strong culture won’t make up for a poor strategy, and a great strategy can’t be delivered by a weak culture.
  • A bad leader can ruin a good culture faster than a good leader can turnaround a bad culture.
  • Consultants don’t change cultures, leaders and employees do.
  • Avoid using the term culture change, it just adds resistance you don’t need.
  • There is no perfect corporate culture.
  • Find the one or two non-negotiable work behaviors that will most dramatically improve the business. There lies your leverage to reshape the culture.
  • Most culture value statements are useless. Less than 50% of executives can name all their stated corporate values.
  • Selective hiring is more effective than culture training.

Okay, so these are definitely not as rigorous and mathematical as Newton’s principles of physics, but they are excellent guidelines to help senior executives better understand the barriers to improved business performance and also understand their own role in leading and reshaping culture.

If you don’t understand your culture, you don’t understand your business.

Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   
FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution




About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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