Several years ago a relatively new employee at a large British newspaper was curious why the papers were so big, so he asked one of the older executives. The reply came quickly. “All quality newspapers are big; customers would not want it any other way.”
A few years later, a rival company – the Independent – halved the size of its newspaper, and saw a surge in circulation. Subsequently, many competitors followed, to similar effect. Yes, customers did want it.
The practice of large format newspapers began in London in 1712 because the English government started taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed. So, news publishers responded by printing their stories on so-called broadsheets, to minimize the number of sheets required and reduce their tax liability. This tax law was abolished in 1855 but newspapers just continued printing on the impractically large sheets of paper for the next 150 years.
Corporate Culture, Habits and Company Policies
One of the most sacrosanct elements of corporate life is the “company policy”. Usually established early in the formation of an organization, these policies, which govern “how things should be done around here”, impact every aspect of employee life, from the timing and content of expense reports and time cards, to pay scales and promotion requirements, to working times and vacation allotments, to the allocation of costs on the P&L. And company policy manuals are usually housed in multiple large binders.
And these are just the formal policies. In most companies the number of formal policies are dwarfed by the informal policies; the amount of openness and transparency of data shared, the power of a middle manager or supervisor, whether or not bad behaviour is confronted or tolerated. The list goes on and on and in many ways determines the quality of work, employee engagement levels and the ultimate ability of the company to deliver on its strategic objectives.
The example of the British newspapers above is just one of many where a policy formed in the 1700’s to reduce printing costs because of government taxation policies carried on long after the government policy was abolished in 1855. No one asked the key question: “Why don’t we change our internal printing policy?”
Corporate culture is mostly invisible and only really shows up in how people behave and conduct their work. To those interested in competitive advantage and company performance, culture can be either an enabler or a barrier. While it may be interesting to describe cultural behaviours, as most culture consultants do, the more effective and useful discussions focus on “Why”. Why do we still print broadsheet papers 150 years after the tax law was abolished? Is there any real data for the preference of broadsheets over smaller paper sizes? How much could we reduce costa by going to a smaller format? Are you sure readers only want broadsheets?
In many cases, like the change in newspaper formats described above, we only ask these questions after a competitor makes a successful change.
Corporate culture is not just physical work behaviours, but also company mindsets and habitual ways of thinking. And in most companies, challenging “company policy” is definitely frowned upon. Until the competition starts eating your lunch!
In my work as an advisor to CEOs and senior executive teams on performance improvement, I see it as my job to question everything about how the company does things, from its yearly planning cycles to staff meetings to new employee on-boarding to hiring profiles, to their approach to strategy execution. What I have come to realize is that company policies, written or unwritten, drive employee behaviour and company performance much more than people realize.
The luxury of being a paid outsider is that I can ask the “Why” questions and people will listen. Too often those inside who ask why are gently (and sometimes not so gently) told to mind their own business.
He who knows why will always win over he who just knows how. ~Thomas D. Willhite
Written and 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
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John also writes thriller novels!