Confusing culture with environment?


High Impact Initiatives for Creating an Organizational Culture by William J Rossi

William Rossi is Professor Emeritus of Entrepreneurship at the University of Florida, having taught at both in the undergraduate and graduate Entrepreneurship Program there for 15 years.  Prior to teaching, Professor Rossi initially held several senior level positions with Ford, Goodrich and Picker International.  After relocating to Florida in 1986, Rossi worked in executive management positions in smaller entrepreneurial companies and was a principal in several.  Rossi holds a Master of Science degree in Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts and an undergraduate degree in mechanical and industrial engineering from Ohio University

I have noticed that a lot of entrepreneurs confuse culture with environment.  While environment can complement a culture, it has absolutely nothing to do with defining one.  You can have bean bag chairs, stand-up desks and brightly colored walls replete with white boards, and have a culture that is closed and stifling.  Culture defines the fundamental fabric of an organization, and the culture that exists creates the basis for how people within the organization will act.

Every enterprise will have a culture.  If it is not created by design, it will evolve on its own.  And, if allowed to evolve on its own, it may not be the one you intended.  Creating an empowering culture involves much more than simply posting the mission statement on the walls.  Consider, for example, that you want to promote a culture of openness and belonging, and one that exhibits a sense of urgency and features a penchant for innovation.  The following are high-impact initiatives that will achieve this.

Wide open communications.  Apart from personnel issues, everything that the top leader knows should be shared with the entire organization.  To do otherwise creates stratification within the organization.  It simply should not be that the top leader knows everything, the next rung under her knows most but not all and the people at the bottom of the organization know very little.  Consider having a regular all-hands meeting where everything new is shared with everyone.  Make these communications authentic and specific; not meaningless hyperbole.

Promote empathy.  Consider having everyone in the organization spend time on the customer support line – everyone!  If someone calls on the customer support line, that person is experiencing pain – he has a problem with whatever it is you do.  It’s a good thing for everyone in the organization – individually – to feel that pain.  Having to resolve the problem requires your team member to be intimate with what you do.  And, it promotes a sense of individual ownership of both the problem and the solution, another good thing.

Value every idea.  The top leader should have an open door policy, and should welcome and listen attentively to every idea, regardless of the source.  Done sincerely, this speaks volumes to every team member in the organization.  It says that each team member matters, her ideas matter and that she is valued as a key contributor.  The payoff here is in fact two-fold: the idea itself may be a very good one, and one that no one else might have offered up.  It simply isn’t possible that the top leader is the only person in the organization with the best ideas.  A former student of mine is the founding CEO of a pretty significant company now.  Remembering me discussing this notion in class, he had the door to his office removed.  It was a sign, and an effective one.

Celebrate failure.  Trying to innovate requires taking risk.  If you take risk, you are going to fail some times.  Innovation and failure are two sides of the same coin.  If you want innovation, you have to accept failure.  More importantly though the organization has to know that failure is OK.  In fact, the organization has to know that it’s more than tolerated; it’s even valued.  So, celebrate both innovation and failure.  Consider creating an intranet as the advertising medium.  Showcase the innovative initiative of the month.  Tell everyone whose initiative it was and in what way it is consequential to the organization.  Also, showcase failures.  Perhaps call them good ideas at the time.  Without saying anything you will have communicated to the organization that failure is OK because we want innovation; hiding failure isn’t OK.

Drive a sense of urgency.  Create a mantra for the organization: Do Something!  Post signs around the organization featuring the mantra.  While a seemingly little thing, this initiative again speaks volumes, as much in what it doesn’t say as in what it does say.  It doesn’t say study something, analyze something or consider something.  It’s promotes an action orientation to the organization.  The outcome will be an overall greater sense of urgency in all that you do.  (I’d love to see signs like this around the halls of Congress and the Senate.)