Culture as a Platform

For anyone that knows me, I am not a big fan of industry buzz terms. The “Internet of Things,” “Big Data,” and “Omni-Channel” are the latest examples that drive me bananas. Not because they don’t have foundational meaning and value, because they all do. It’s because they get bastardized into products and services that sell the promise of more revenue, improved customer experience, or reduced expense without the slightest understanding of how a particular company operates its’ business or how skilled and diverse the level of talent is. The true value of these products or services is derived from how adept the company is to operationalize the insights, tools, processes, data, scorecards, visualizations etc. into meaningful change. This ability to consume, take advantage of, and operationalize change is where the true value of these investments occurs. Unfortunately most times, if you build it, they will NOT come.

So, why don’t more leaders understand the level of change / talent management required when making a significant platform investment? Because it’s expensive to take the time and do the right level of assessment of the companies’ ability to change, adapt, or have the right skills to operate in the new construct. The true cost of the investment should include the time it takes to train or find new talent to be able to operationalize change across the organization. Most of companies’ existing leaders were hired to perform against existing metrics, tools, and processes. They will resist change until you give them a compelling reason why it will benefit them and even then it won’t get adopted if there is any stumbling block that impacts their performance. Delays in dates, changes in scope, and incomplete metrics will shut down change in a hurry. This often leads to projects that get cut far short of their potential, resulting in companies saying “we tried that, and it didn’t work” even though only 10% of the original vision was put into everyday practice. Even worse, a company deploys a partial solution that adds more complexity, another system, and more steps to a process taking it even longer to service customers. This leads to a degrading of service and an increase in cost.

What is a leader to do? How does one even start on this type of journey without avoiding these pitfalls? In my experience, companies that continue to innovate, change, perform, and adapt all share one quality: they leverage their strong culture as a platform. What do I mean by “platform?” Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a declaration of the principles on which a group of persons stands.” It’s not enough to declare what your culture is. I have seen plenty of companies that state that innovation, change, risk taking, etc. is part of their culture, but when you get under the covers, nobody is holding anyone accountable to these attributes, they are not written in to the hiring guidelines, and it’s obvious it’s just not in their DNA. This culture platform should be informing leadership on their readiness to change or adopt new operating tools, processes, and constructs. When a specific group starts to fall off the platform, it is easily recognizable and others help to course correct. They don’t simply say, “That’s their problem.” Culture at high performing companies is everyone’s responsibility and should not be used to get a leg up, compare one department to another, or as an excuse when things don’t go well.

Culture as a platform isn’t easy to obtain, it takes time, focus, and the right talent management approach. High performing companies like Intuit, USAA, and Amazon all take advantage of this approach and they have consistent, high performance year over year. Intuit’s culture platform is focused on creating “awesome” customer experiences. It’s the culture platform that drives product development, customer support, and web site design. When some process, employee, or tool isn’t in alignment, the platform identifies it and makes quick course corrections keeping that culture platform very stable and focused. Having a strong culture platform allows these companies to quickly adjust to changing market conditions and take advantage of the latest tools on the market. They don’t have to invest time in the change management assessment mentioned above giving them a significant cost and time advantage.

So next time you are involved in a large company initiative, ask yourself “Is our companies’ culture ready of this?” Not asking this question is why most of these investments don’t live up to the promise that leaders want to invest in. Most likely, the scope of the project will need to be adjusted to fill in the culture void that exists across the company. It will cost more over time, but it will also avoid some of the typical project pitfalls. I would recommend leaders focus on developing a culture platform as an accelerator to get to their business outcomes faster rather than focusing on large investments. Having the right talent all engaged and focused with the right set of guiding principles can outperform products and services buzz terms hands down.

Now, go change something!

Scott McIntyre
Chief Instigator – Infinite Green