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The cover story of the April 2016 Harvard Business Review (HBR) issue carried the headline, “You Can’t Fix Culture,” which challenged traditional views on corporate culture. That same month, the Great Place To Work (GPTW) Institute – authors of the annual list of the “100 Best Places to Work For” published by Fortune magazine – hosted their annual conference to celebrate the standouts in America’s workplace cultures.

On the surface, these two things appear contradictory. One is questioning the role of corporate culture and one is applauding it. But here’s the thing – there may be more similarities than differences once you dig in.

What they share is a focus on the importance of creating deliberate connections between strategy and culture and then innovating the way you communicate, the way you share, and the way you engage people in that culture so it stays fresh, relevant and inspirational as the needs of the strategy evolve.

Building and sustaining a strong, solid connection between strategy and culture is key. But, don’t forget to innovate.

When culture is a nebulous thing, or an initiative sitting alongside of your day-to-day work, you may be missing the mark. But, when culture and strategy are working in service of each other – you’re off to the races and driving performance! Culture is not what you espouse or intend. It is defined through the way day-to-day work is carried out. It manifests itself through the interactions among your people. And it’s something that goes much deeper than an office game room or weekly bagel delivery.

The underpinnings of a corporate culture are in the traditions and history. Yet, the active culture is driven by today’s norms and behaviors reinforced at the team, department and organizational levels. While culture is a big, pervasive concept, it is also a simple, active concept.

Three years ago I had a brief and fortunate opportunity to have dinner with Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. At the time, I was working at GPTW, focused on culture transformation and had prior experience driving culture change in-house at Mercedes-Benz Financial Services. I asked Dr. Pfeiffer how long it took to drive culture change and noted I’d seen a three to four year pattern. He replied, “Three to four years!?! You can change culture overnight. It’s a product of behaviors. People can behave any way they want to. As a company, what are you valuing and reinforcing? Change that and the culture can change tomorrow.”

That comment made an impact. Think about how much your customer, product or most importantly your employee needs to change in three to four years! Your culture doesn’t have to lag behind. The culture change you need – in order to stay aligned to the changes happening everywhere else – doesn’t have to move at a slower pace. Is change hard? Yes. Will people resist changing their behaviors? Yes. But if you have a solid culture strategy and are rigorous in your intent to innovate the way you bring your strategy to life, they might actually find that change isn’t so hard after all.

And there’s where the HBR article and the GPTW conference intersect. The objective isn’t to “fix culture.” The objective is to support people to do great work inspired by your strategy. (If you need some help with that let us know.) The HBR article included stories of companies whose realities forced a level of clarity and urgency to change. In the “100 Best” list there are similar stories, as well as strong examples of values and purpose-driven organizations that consistently outperform their peers. Is there anything in common? Yes…ongoing innovation in the way they create the employee experience, the way they support and reinforce the behaviors that the strategy requires.
Great cultures are carefully cultivated, celebrated and enabled inline with the strategy. And therein lies the secret – let your strategy be your guide. Don’t innovate for innovation’s sake or to keep up with the neighbors. If you’re great, innovate to stay great. If you’re facing a challenge, innovate to drive forward. Take some risks. Test new things out. Be bold. In each case, align with your strategy and innovate the ways in which you engage, inspire and support your people to drive the day-to-day behavior and performance your business needs.

June 1, 2016


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