If “culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Ducker), then to help master culture it is important to know how best to cultivate it.
For as long as there has been humanity, people have been taking the natural resources around them and using them to live and express themselves. Resources vary according to location and spring from their specific climate. Equatorial peoples are some of our earliest farmers. Women from India wore brightly coloured sarees because they could grow the cotton and dye them with the vegetables they had on hand. At the same time, those closer to the polls stayed hunter-gatherers longer and prized a fur pelt to keep themselves warm.
Good cultures do not happen by accident. Cultures survive because of hard work, innovation, and adaptation. Some cultures had to adapt as their climate changed and resources went scarce. Some benefited from an abundance of resources. Some failed and gave us a lesson of what not to repeat.
Mapping your climate
Do you take the temperature of your team, department, and organisation? Are phrases like “we have a climate of fear/blame/other negative frames” used? This is the rain, hail, sleet, and snow that you need to protect yourself from.
Building a culture is not a matter of looking around and seeing what others have done and emulating them. Others may need to shelter from the sun as they live a nomadic life. Lessons may be learned, but your context and climate is everything.
You need to look for your naturally occurring resources to build a culture you can and should aspire to.
Suppose your organisation earns an income from teaching. In that case, a culture of continuous education will be easier to achieve than for a manufacturer, where repeatability is top of mind. One cultivates learning while the other grows operational efficiency—different climates with the opportunity to create distinct cultures.
Using our own company as an example, SECTION6 builds mission-critical software for mission-critical businesses. This requires technical skills and applications beyond what is expected from most software developers.
When we work with clients, we achieve results to match their often challenging and demanding visions. But skilled people are not enough to do this—so we do not sell people. Outcomes often require complicated environments. Many different organisations, requirements, solutions and schedules must be combined through a collaborative effort. No one organisation can claim to deliver the outcome, but done correctly together, and all can claim success—so we do not sell outcomes.
We sell teams of people that collaborate with our clients and their other partners to deliver an outcome.
We succeeded where others have tried but failed to deliver what was asked, even with talented people. We sell teams because we know our teams deliver what our clients need and want.
Understanding this, we know that our teams are a precious resource—unique and valuable.
With this in mind, we have set out to create and sustain a generative culture that enables better teamwork—high cooperation, trained communicators, risk and idea-sharing, with a focus on inquiry.
This type of culture is no accident. Dr Ron Westrum, a pioneer in organisational culture, saw that a generative culture was required when working in high risk and highly complex fields. This was found to translate into the delivery of otherwise difficult software outcomes. Further research has confirmed this —a high-trust, generative culture predicts the success of software delivery and organisational performance in technology.
If your culture is to eat strategy for breakfast, then do not think that it will happen naturally. Indeed it requires its own strategy, effort, and constant attention. But if you sow what will grow and work hard to cultivate it, you have an opportunity to produce a unique and distinctive culture that will serve you and your customers well.