Cultivating culture with intention

Growing companies are taking an increased interest in how to build culture with intention. Starting with the recruiting and on boarding process, they are looking as much for fit as for technical skills.  Thanks to the success of places like Zappos and DaVita, where culture is almost an obsession, we have seen the influence of culture on driving revenue, customer experiences, and employee retention.

The difference between these companies and others starts with intention. Culture is no accident – it is defined, understood, and reinforced continually at companies that use culture to drive results. The leaders in these organizations know how to build to suit the culture, and success comes first from within. It is almost an organic application of design thinking, because it forces management to ask a different set of questions when developing a new product, market, or service. Rather than starting with the technology, putting culture first creates a natural sequence of designing customer and employee experiences first, and then following with technology solutions that support that direction.

If you are in a growing company or division and you want to create culture with intention, consider how you personally understand and model the culture you’d like to see. Remember Kouzes and Posner’s disciplines of leadership – ‘model the way’ is core to everything leadership should do. Culture emanates not from what leaders say but from what they do – the decisions they make, the priorities they set, and the way they orient towards customers and employees. If you start innovation processes, operational solution sessions, or product development by asking ‘does this direction support us having the culture we want to have’ and ‘can we successfully develop this and be in alignment with our cultural commitments’, you will be on your way to building a culture with intention.

The World Cup as a universal language

Univision (a American Spanish speaking broadcast station) recently published that their non-Hispanic viewership is up 2/3rds since the last World Cup.  In a recent NYT vlog, one young American woman was quoted commenting on her preference of viewing the games on Univision, noting that even though she doesn’t know Spanish, it is more exciting to watch than the ESPN version because of the enthusiasm of the commentators. “When I listen to ESPN, it’s not quite the same” she said.  Another young  American guy explains why he goes to a primarily Mexican bar to watch on Univision: “The whole vibe of it is…. more like a party!”

What a beautiful articulation of the power of emotion and the transcendence of language! Excitement, enthusiasm, despair, and loyalty know no language barriers – they are transcendent and powerful in any voice. If you are watching the World Cup tomorrow, consider checking out a few minutes in Univision even if you don’t speak Spanish. You just might be caught up in the power of it all in a different way, and who knows what might happen then :)

Do you know why your business needs to innovate?

When I run innovation sessions for clients, we often have to spend a good bit of time up front talking about the objectives for the sessions – ‘what’ is it that we are trying to innovate.  Sangeet Choudary had a good article in Wired earlier this year where he talked about the differences between a “stuff” approach, a “optimization” approach, and a “platform” approach, or as he puts it:

  1. The “stuff” approach: How can we create more stuff whenever the problem crops up?
  2. The “optimization” approach: How can we better distribute the stuff already created to minimize waste?
  3. The “platform” approach: How can we redefine stuff and find new ways of solving the same problem?

He has some great examples of the differences between the three, pointing out that the “platform” approach is fairly new and depends on the technology enabling resources we now have at our disposal. One that everyone can relate to is hotel accommodations – big chains take the “stuff” approach to innovation by continually building out new and different types of properties, companies like Kayak make the finding of accommodations more efficient and accessible – the “optimizing” approach to innovation, and companies like AirBnB redefine the platform through which travelers understand and access accommodations altogether – the platform approach.

Check it out, and the next time someone says “we need to be more innovative around here”, stop and dive into what they mean by innovation. It might lead to some productive insights about how to progress your organization’s strategy and objectives.



Are your strategy signs confusing?

A few months ago I posted a sign from a local bagel shop that I just thought was humorous and a little confusing.  I have a hobby, born with the acquisition of my first iPhone oh so many years ago, of snapping pictures of signs that make me laugh.

It occurred to me last week as I walked through a client’s offices and looked at the signs on the various walls and cubical divider that we often send confusing, unclear, or even funny signs to employees about strategy. Strategy is tough to articulate in non-tactical terms, and much of the value of ‘doing strategy work’ comes in the discussions people have while debating, discussing, and setting strategic direction.  It can be hard to translate all of that experience into a simple diagram. In the last few years we’ve seen ‘journey maps’, graphical renderings, and colorful cartoons or videos take the place of the powerpoint ‘boxes on a slide’ approach. For some people, those approaches work great, for others not so much so, as is true with most types of communication.

I’ve come to believe that for communicating strategy, diversity is critical. Posters with colorful adventures on them showing airports or race tracks or hiking trails are great. So are linear boxes on pages and everything in-between.  The challenge is that you need different versions to connect with different people, but the story behind them needs to be the same. So focus on the storyline – what’s the narrative you want everyone to absorb and know about the pictures you are creating? That narrative is what will be used to contextualize anything you put out there, so getting it right is critical to engaging employees in a common strategic direction.

Be cautious of over investing in the artifacts and under investing in the narrative. Part of why I’ve seen clients do exactly that is simple – the artifact creation can be largely outsourced, but understanding the narrative requires executives to spend time learning the message. By extension, it also requires executives to align with the narrative, because they need to speak it out loud over and over as consistently as possible, so it exposes any remaining personal agendas or disagreements.  But let’s face it – if those exist, the strategy probably won’t work anyway, so you may as well get them out on the table.

Video is a great way to coach executives to share narratives – having executives essentially do practice sessions similar to a practice interview that gets filmed and reviewed is a meaningful way to help create consistency in the narrative. People might not like it, but it will get results around a critical investment you’ve made in developing your strategy – don’t let all the hard work and expense go to waste just because people don’t like to be coached on how to explain things!  Try it and see what happens….

Do you know how to have generative conflict?

Workplaces today tend to discourage conflict. They teach people “communication skills” for how to say a “soft no”, or how to reduce or avoid tension, or how to give bad news a “positive positioning”, or how to convince people that what is happening really is good for them – creating a need where one did not exist. It can sound a lot like marketing!  All of these skills are nice to have in your communication toolkit, but I would suggest that we run the risk of losing the ability to generate radically new ideas through conflict.

Radically new ideas rarely emerge from a pleasant, comfortable vibe. They tend to emerge in tension filled, difficult, sometimes crazy environments where people are pushed to their limits intellectually and emotionally at times. It is through conflict that we collectively create new solutions that no one has considered before, because it is often the impetuous declarative, the arrogant position, the loopiest idea, or the most dire circumstance that often moves a group to the generation of something beyond the thinking of any one individual.

People generally don’t want to live in conflict filled environments where they are continuously pushed beyond their limits, but I would suggest that in the work environment, there needs to be a safe and accepted place and way for conflict to happen. If we lose that competency, I fear we collectively run the risk of mediocrity in our solutions to tough problems and our ideation of new business solutions.

I’d suggest that the ability to have generative conflict is a skill we may need to teach in business communications today.  I see generative conflict as having a few distinct characteristics:

  1. It allows for passionate, loud, and politically incorrect discussion.
  2. It is contained to environments where everyone understands the goal of producing a radically new solution to an identified problem.
  3. It is not ‘the norm’, but it is an accepted problem solving approach where people know the language and style will be different from everyday communication.

Generative conflict is useful when it meets three specific conditions:

  1. The need for it emerges from a passionate disagreement about a fundamental and important and specific business decision – setting a new strategy, creating a new product, offering a new service, entering a new market, hiring or firing key personal, investing in research and development, etc.
  2. The power levels between the individuals involved is somewhat level, although not necessarily equal in terms of hierarchy.
  3. The conflict interaction stays on-topic and is not a personal or threatening attack.

Generative conflict does not mean a free-for-all where you can say unkind things, attack an individual, or exercise positional power in inappropriate ways. But it does mean that you can speak your mind – if you think someone is wrong, you can say “I think you are wrong” rather than having to come up with something like “when you say things like that it makes me wonder if perhaps you don’t have all the data, or I haven’t done a good enough job of explaining….”

It isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every environment or situation. But when we think about companies that have managed to break down barriers in technology and deliver amazingly innovative products to the market, nearly all of them have stories of rough and tumble conflict driving the innovation process. Maybe we should learn from that and work to integrate some of that approach into some of the ‘communication processes’ we are developing and teaching.