Bottles of bacon and chicken wing soda

Bacon and Buffalo Chicken Wing Soda – things have to change!

Culture is a reflection of how the people within an organization act. The culture is protected by peer pressure and the processes, procedures and policies teams and organizations enact and enshrine. Overall organizational culture is difficult to change. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, would call culture “sticky.” One major reason culture is sticky and generates defense mechanisms is that once a culture is entrenched those people that are inside the culture become comfortable. They understand how to make the culture work.  Organizations also find how to make culture work. Alignment to culture fosters higher worker satisfaction, more employee engagement, higher productivity and employee retention. Cultural fit matters to organizations and to individuals.  The dark side of cultural alignment (all forces need to have balance) is that cultural alignment can lead to stagnation and low levels of innovation. As we have noted in the past, “culture eats change for breakfast.”  New organizations establishing a culture and organizations and cultures that have generated hardened boundaries will have several levels of defense beginning with hiring for culture. Culture guides information sharing, how work is done and how individuals and groups interact therefore directly impact value delivery at a team and organization level. Cultures that generate prescriptive processes, procedures, and policies and then make adaptation difficult make change and innovation hard.

A different pattern that accepts the idea that culture must change is embodied in the “hire people for values and that add to the culture model” (shortened to value fit – cultural add hires). Values are deeply held principles that guide core behavior. Values are what people believe, while culture reflects the interpretation of those values based on the context the person finds themselves in. For example, many organizations strongly pursue collaboration as a value.  The value of collaboration is translated into the behaviors of the people inside the organization. Collaboration reflected by clustering of team members together, face-to-face meetings and peer reviews — the personal interaction between people. In many organizations, this face-to-face interaction is outgrown as organizations mature and/or scale. People begin to work remotely or teams are spread across multiple locations. The value of collaboration is still core, however, to more flexibly implement that value the culture and the rules that enforce that culture needs to change. Hiring people that support the value of collaboration but can help advance how that value is implemented reflects the idea of hiring for cultural add.

When values and culture are not aligned tension within the system will increase. Lots of tension is bad but some tension is required to generate innovation.  If people are satisfied there will be very little impetus for change. All of the benefits of cultural alignment will be at risk. The problem is culture is difficult to assess (thanks Matt Williams for the discussion on the topic).  The best reflection of culture and the values that underpin culture is how people behave. If behavior is the gold standard for understanding culture and values, knowing how someone will behave before you hire them is important. The problem is that it is not as easy as asking how a person would behave – because of all sorts of complicated cognitive biases.  Observing how people interact works; however, unless you are hiring from a pool of interns or consultants/contractors setting up observation scenarios is complicated and fraught with potential biases. Often our best course is to ask for “real-life” examples and then interpret the results through a diverse set of eyes. If we are attempting to grow the culture, our interpretation will be influenced by whether the examples represent mirror our interpretation of our core values and whether if we emulate the behavior our culture will reflect what we want to be like the future.