Design of Business

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Category: Culture (page 3 of 3)

Culture in Companies and Business Success

In what’s becoming an annual event (okay, it was two years in a row), I attended a workshop titled “Values-based Leadership” lead by Richard Barrett. Despite the slow start, and initial misgivings when Richard quickly put on a video of his that’s available on YouTube (hey, I have come to hear you in person, was my first thought) – the day proved to be thought-provoking and productive, for two reasons. Firstly a full day away from the daily grind at the office, just thinking and discussing things from the sublime, (Who am I? What is my purpose in life?) to grimy reality (What is the culture in your company?) was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Secondly, the workshop turned out to be completely about culture, ways of measuring it and the role culture and values play in the business success of organizations. Many thoughts that had been stewing below the surface of my conscious mind or even the few that had cleared the surface and were still nebulous at best, began to get some definite shape and dare I say, validation through the course of the day.

Before I push ahead, it’s worth stepping back and trying to get a working definition of culture spelled out. Many serious thinkers have come up a variety of definitions – ranging from the anthropological all the way to organizational – I will confine myself to the rather simple assertion, that culture is how people in an organization behave and expect others to behave, on a daily basis. This behavior is almost always driven or at the very least most strongly influenced from the top, down. In other words, the leaders (in small enterprises these are almost always the founders) set the culture and the everyday actions of the people in the organization reinforce this culture. Here again, I use the term actions to include explicit inaction or lack of action as much as deliberate actions taken. For instance, not confronting (constructively or otherwise), or avoiding conflict is as much an element of organizational culture as an action such as yelling at your subordinates or sharing recognition and praise as well.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also state my position – that I believe that culture trumps all other considerations in building healthy, dynamic and long lasting successful organizations. Yes, all those things we learned in business school or at our fathers’ knees are still true – operational excellence, technology, and R&D, financial performance, killer products or services are all important for success but culture is critical to sustain and build upon the gains made. After six years of running a bootstrapped software company, from the giddy optimistic start, through axing one entire department and having those folks out-placed, asking the remaining team to take 10-15% pay cuts, even as we worked to deliver newer products, fend off competitors and keep those fickle customers who hadn’t yet gone out of business in the downturn or been gobbled up, to achieving market leadership in our niche and finally selling our own company, the number one insight I have gained is that culture is the critical ingredient for organization success.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to share some of the lessons I have learnt from my journey as an engineer, manager, CEO and general factotum (they are nearly the same thing, you sometimes have a little more freedom as a factotum) and in the bargain, I hope to learn as well. The journey continues!

When in doubt, communicate early & often


Photo Credit: altemark via Compfight

In early September, a colleague and I checked into a hotel in Tokyo and were given rooms on the 29th floor. We headed for the elevators – there were 12 of them, in three sets of four that would get us up to our rooms. When we pressed the UP button for an elevator, immediately one of the lights in front of an elevator to our right turned on. Expectantly we stood in front of it, waiting for the doors to open. A few minutes later, the light that had been steadily lit up, began blinking and the door opened. Later the same evening we went through the same process on our way DOWN to the lobby — press the DN button, immediately one of the four elevator indicator lights come on, soon the light blinks and the elevator door opens. It is then we figured out that the first time the light comes on, it indicated which elevator was coming for us and once the elevator got to our floor, it would blink to indicate its actual arrival.

As managers we could do well to emulate the designer of this elevator system, namely “share a fact the moment we know it” — which elevator is going to come up; and “continue to share as and when more information becomes available” — once the elevator is there, notify its arrival explicitly. It sounds so simple yet our own behaviour every day belies this very simplicity.

Communication is learned behaviour
Many of our organisations are plagued by poor communication. All the technology we have at our disposal, often no further than our fingertips, only seems to add to the problem. If you have at times, felt that the only sharing in your organisation seems to be unabashedly flaming e-mails, you are not alone. What makes it so hard to follow this simple dictum to share? Why do reasonable people, who complain that they do not get the information they need, turn around and act in an opaque manner?

Simply put, communication within an organisation is learned behaviour. Regardless of individual idiosyncrasies or insecurities, employees are quick learners with regards to acceptable corporate behaviour. They pick up on cues — when more than one e-mail goes unanswered or every e-mail discussing the smallest technical problem in their department is copied to 20 other people – most of whom they have not met. When a co-worker, who seemed either comatose or on sabbatical, responds with alacrity to the same question from a vice-president, the message is loud and clear on what works and how they need to act to get things done.

Review communication behaviour
What can be learnt of course can be unlearnt, if not always easily, as our spouses will vouch. As individuals, managers and leaders we can effect change in our organisations’ communication process through deliberate actions. Begin with your immediate team – your manager, your staff and your colleagues. Are you sharing everything they need to know, not just what you feel needs to be shared? Are you doing it in a succinct and clear fashion? Are you doing it in a timely manner – with adequate advance notice for things that need preparation or the earliest possible opportunity after a relevant event? Are you sending emails when a face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate? Are you dealing with things verbally which are better put in writing?

A rule to live by
Ask yourself would I or someone else be surprised later, if I did not share this information and share it NOW? Would I have liked to have known this sooner or in private, or with more context?

A simple rule that covers all of these and hundred other possible communication pitfalls is “No surprises!”

When in doubt, communicate early and often!

Communication as with most things in life, needs moderation. There will certainly be times when discretion will be the better part of valour and less communication may be more! Go forth and communicate!

This article was first published in the Business Line in October 15, 2007

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