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.

#likeagirl takes on redefining a huge cultural assumption

When I was growing up, doing something “like a girl” meant being substandard, clumsy, inadequate, or at a minimum being kinda dumb. The implied inverse, that doing something “like a boy” meant competent, strong, tough, or brave, was equally accepted.

The recent Always campaign to challenge what it means to do something “like a girl” is a beautiful articulation of this problematic phrase that we all know so well. People sometimes say to me “it is just an expression” or “it doesn’t really matter” when I challenge them about using these types of sayings.  If you think it doesn’t matter, check out the video, and really consider what you are saying when you use that type of language. Kind, generous, supportive, lovely people say these sorts of things all the time without thinking about what it really means, and changing that for girls everywhere is important in changing mindsets all over the world. It does matter.  Language matters, assumptions matter, and it is important for girls to hear that being “like a girl” is awesome – strong, independent, capable, and full of joy.  Check it out if you haven’t seen it:


Social Media goes to War

We’ve seen how social media has shaped the entertainment industry, political conversations, and the workplace. Now we are starting to see it shape the battlefield in places like Iraq, where militants are using it to mobilize and terrorize.  The New York Times recently published this article on the highly sophisticated ways in which Sunni militants are using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to communicate with each other and to send messages to outsiders.

In the past week they’ve hijacked hashtags related to the World Cup events to publicize their agendas, flooding popular hashes with violent images and text. This use of social media introduces a new and troubling dimension to what has been largely a social and entertainment driven phenomena.  Sites like Facebook can shut down individuals and groups on their site, but having the leverage and reach to take over a popular hashtag like #WorldCup for the purposes of war actions is something altogether different. As a hashtag, it is public domain and not ‘shutdown-able’ the way a Facebook page is – hashtags become ‘real’ as people use them, and die off as people move on.

When hashtags were first created in 2007, it was an organic phenomena on Twitter that took off with users as an easy way to categorize topics of interest. Hashtags are still just that – organic in nature and by design not easily managed. It remains to be seen how the Twitter-verse or any other byways in the social media landscape will handle this very real invasion into its space.  I think this represents a significant shift in how hashtags are understood and the ways in which they are used. Companies that are active in social will want to pay close attention to blowups on hashes they are driving and watch for militant activity as a new threat to the conversations they are trying to have in social spheres.

In defense of libraries

It seems that periodically these days we hear about the coming demise of libraries. They are framed as dinosaurs, inelegant reminders of a space that has outlived its usefulness. Sometimes I wonder if the authors of these articles have been to a library recently.

Today I went to our local library, a typical suburban location with a reasonable socio-economic mix around it, just off of a strip mall. There is nothing remarkable about it from a location perspective that would make it particularly more or less busy as a library. It certainly isn’t anything like the libraries built as testaments to the written word. It opens at 10am on Wednesdays, and at 9:55 there was a line of people at the door about 15 deep.  I got in line, and by the time the doors opened at 10, there were about 6 or 7 more people behind me.

By all appearances, the crowd was a mix of people.  A mother and her teen age son were in line ahead of me, they were there for his weekly meeting with his math tutor, who was apparently in line behind me. I later saw the two of them in one of the small conference rooms, math on the white board, and deep in conversation. A mother with a small child and a stack of books was there for a drop off and restock. The minute she got through the entrance, the little girl said “Mommy, I’m going to go read OK?” and took off for the children’s section without hesitation. A man in a wheelchair made his way through the door and to a workstation where he got online – he was deeply engrossed in the news when I walked by about an hour later, although I’d observed several visitors and employees saying hello to him and stopping to chat. For that matter, the workstations with internet access were in constant full use – a good reminder that not everyone has access at home, either because of coverage, cost, or equipment requirements. A few older people quietly played cards in one of the side rooms, and several read the newspaper or a magazine in the periodical section. Other people browsed the stacks, stopping to check out the ‘staff picks’ and new releases. Me?  I was there to check out a few audio books for an upcoming road trip.

Maybe someday paper books, newspapers, and magazines will be obsolete, but the role of a library in a community is so much more than that of a warehouse. It isn’t just a place to put physical books and have people take them away and return them.  A library is a neighborhood asset, a connection place, a space where community happens.  San Antonio’s book less library has gotten some good press (see here for the recent Times article), an interesting experiment in what purpose libraries really serve, and how users want to consume literature as well as congregate.  The Pew Institute tells us that e-reader use is up, and printed media use is down, so as I said at the beginning, I accept that physical objects may go away. But be cautious of writing off the library too quickly as obsolete. Losing libraries would be losing so much more than a roof over the paper on which stories are printed.

Amsterdam’s Central Library, Photograph: View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images

Amsterdam’s Central Library, opened in 2007.

A Framework for the Future of Work

When I think about the Future of Work, I consider the environmental, economic, organizational, and individual impacts.  The framework below provides a broad set of considerations for these areas as you think about where you want to take your organization and what it means to ‘work’ in your world.  Try asking yourself some questions about these areas and see what happens then!

Framework for the Future

What’s GenX’s Winnebego?

When we think about the future of work, we think about how things are changing.  New generations entering, older generations exiting, new types of work becoming the norm, with older patterns and habits dying off – some going easily and others fighting to stay relevant.

When I think about what’s changing, I think in terms of environmental, economic, organizational, and individual changes that drive industries, markets, and the workforce. In the 60s, the American desire to get on the road and explore, coupled with inexpensive materials and fuel, gave birth to entire new industries, including the Recreational Vehicle, KOA parks, and chain restaurants. Baby Boomers gave us the Winnebego and its related support industries, and now, as I look into the future, I wonder what will happen as mid-life GenXers start to  exert generational influence and character while also navigating between the needs of longer living (and working) Baby Boomers and Millennials whose expectations of work and reward are so different from traditional definitions.

Perhaps we already have our Winnebego, and it is the iPad and all of its related industries that didn’t exist a scant 10 years ago. App Stores, wireless speakers, camera phones, video chat, text platforms, social media – these are all feeding a generational desire to connect in ways that were pure fantasy not so long ago.  I’m typing this post on a tablet, in my kitchen, without a cord in sight, while listening to a streaming radio program and texting with my nephew and finishing up some work for tomorrow.  Perhaps that is our Winnebego – the portability and integration of home life, recreation, work, and play. Or maybe we haven’t figured it out yet, we’ll have to see.

GenT – How Transparency is rocking our world at work, at home, at life

There’s been a lot of discussion about NetGen, or the Millinials, but to me, the defining characteristic of today’s generation is transparency. Kids are growing up in an environment where everything they do and say is shared with broad audiences, and where digital archives are an accepted part of life. People in their 20s and 30s have spent the majority of their work lives in a digital world, where easy replication of once sensitive information is commonplace. Perspectives on what is private and what is OK to share are changing rapidly.

Transparency has some wonderful results – once taboo sujects like abuse, rape, hazing, government overreach, and workplace dangers are brought out of the shadows and into the national conversation, helping survivors to heal and assisting in the prevention of such behaviors going forward. In the workplace, sharing ideas, solutions, and having broader, more open conversations help drive creative solutions. Collaboration requires transparency and authenticity to be successful, and learning to work in a transparent world is a critical skill.

But transparency also introduces new problems for society to understand and address. Intrusions on privacy, protecting corporate practices and intellectual property, and respecting individual boundaries are all areas that start to shift when transparency is more accepted. What is private, the perceived need to protect, the value of sharing, and where exactly individual boundaries lie are all changing, and management approaches, policies, and social contracts need to keep up.

If your workplace isn’t thinking about the impact of changing social mores around transparency, now is the time to start.  Try these three questions to get the conversation going, and see what happens then.  Keep in mind that assumptions are usually driven by people with more tenure, and may be hard to surface if you don’t really dig deep.

  1. What are current assumptions about what is confidential and what isn’t?
  2. Are those assumptions really reflecting current behaviors and common understanding?
  3. If not, do you need to update the assumptions or address the behaviors?



Failure makes visible our naked condition

Just read a great article from the New York Times on failure by Costica Bradatan – In Praise of Failure.  Check it out for his three reasons failure is important to human existence:

  1. Failure allows us to see our existence in its naked condition
  2. Our capacity to fail is essential to what we are
  3. We are designed to fail

Bradatan points out that “To experience failure is to start seeing the cracks in the fabric of being, and that’s precisely the moment when, properly digested, failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. For it is this lurking, constant threat that should make us aware of the extraordinariness of our being: the miracle that we exist at all when there is no reason that we should. Knowing that gives us some dignity.”

Somehow we have become a population that shies away from failure – we talk about ‘failing forward’, or how we don’t have to ‘fail’, we can instead ‘learn’. We get aggressive about failure ‘tackling it head on’, ‘turning it around’, ‘refusing to fail’, or being ‘too big to fail’. We are afraid of what we are, as Bradatan reminds us, biologically designed to fail in the end.

Philosophically it is fascinating to consider – what happens when we seriously interrogate our popular aversion to failure? What to we give up, what do we gain?

Local Culture Eats Change Management for Dessert

After some great discussion with colleagues and friends about my last blog post on local versus corporate culture, I realized that if local culture eats corporate culture for lunch, it has change management for dessert. That’s because change management tends to focus on individual change, neglecting the power of the collective outside of a corporate construct. I think both individual and collective approaches are necessary, but here’s the challenge. You can measure and report out on how many people have been through training, received communications, and even those who are exhibiting behavioral changes. It is much trickier to figure out how to manage and report on organizational change that gets at local culture.

At the same time, change management delivered via external consultants has to rely on “deliverables” and “roadmaps” – that’s how the contracts are constructed. As a result, going into local cultures and figuring out change management approaches that will deal with highly local resistance points is impractical.

I think change management has a lot of value, and I’ve seen some tremendous work delivered by my colleagues in the field. But I think we have to be practical about the power of local culture, and work through how to leverage and incorporate it into change programs rather than going for a ‘one size fits all’, or worse, a ‘one size fits corporate’ approach. That’s the kind of challenge I love to wrap my head around, and to think about what happens when you are able to get everything firing on all cylinders locally and globally. It is exciting to think about, right?

Local culture eats corporate culture for lunch

I’ve had the rich opportunity to work with many global clients on challenges related to culture, especially with the introduction of social media tools in the workplace. The ability and desire to connect across offices creates fascinating questions about what a single global entity can understand and relate to as ‘its’ culture while dealing with the incredibly local reality of culture.  This become particularly evident when a single person located in a corporate headquarters is responsible for driving ‘engagement’ and ‘communities’ worldwide.  It also is especially visible when considered in the scope of global technology or process roll-outs, M&A activity, and implementation of shared services for global businesses.

Companies are starting to see the value of a ‘branded’ culture – a culture that everyone understands, embodies, and protects. The challenge, especially for older or larger companies, is shifting to a common understanding of an organizational culture, when powerful micro-cultures have existed and thrived for decades self-reinforcing over time.  These are particularly ‘wicked’ challenges, and require broad thinking coupled with the ability to understand narrow needs – ambidextrous thinking at its best.

In my work, I’ve learned three things about how to approach these challenges:

1) Never underestimate the power of the local culture. Headquarters tends to apply a command and control approach to “culture change” that honestly never works. They might think it does, but spend a few days out in the field and you will find a very different view.

2) Use the tools that are available to create conversations specifically about culture. People need to talk about it to create a new mental model – they can’t just get it off of a piece of paper, no matter how artfully rendered. Conversation is critical.

3) Accept that local cultures will always exist, and that they can serve a positive purpose. Focus on the big things that need to be consistent – mission/vision/values if you use those tools, or common purpose, or whatever it is that is the anchor for your culture. There is value in local color and connection, so long as it exists hospitably within the larger cultural paradigm.