Unpacking Transformation 2020, Part 6: Cultures

A Guide To Subverting Digital Transformation Hype And Clearing Your Path To Discovery, Ignition & Growth

Where Context Is A Gold Mine, Cultures Can Be Minefields

Leaders with the ability to craft thoughtful, leading questions – and listen with equal skill – mine context for insights. Culture on the other hand, is stacked with both layers of complexity and layers of opportunity. Rather than trying to understand every cultural nuance yourself, enlist trusted insiders.

All Politics Culture Is Local

I lived in Vietnam for nearly a decade. Between the 1-2 year mark I figured out how to work within the culture – there’s still more I don’t understand. The big takeaway? I needed locals who trusted me in my corner. Japan is another example of a business culture where trusted local team members are crucial for foreigners to succeed.

In hindsight I feel like an idiot for imagining it would be any other way. Our minds have a knack for convincing us “we know” things. Leaders on a culture mission would do well to consider themselves a foreigner in their own land/company.

While there’s some overlap with this article, Intersection: Digital Transformation & High-Context Cultures lays out a few examples that may be helpful, plus a shocking statistic about the number of languages spoken by kids in NYC public schools.

Thinking Small

We talk about culture in broad terms of geographical and other identity markers. That’s oversimplified – cultures aren’t monolithic. In companies we talk about the culture, singular. Also oversimplified.

Go from finance to product development/design and you’ll find distinctly different people, preferences, and behaviors. Even the interlaced sales & marketing disciplines are the subject of an endless debate about how to get them aligned. The IT department is unique and so is operations.

There are multiple, smaller cultures inside any company with more than 100 employees and the diversity increases with size, regional footprint, product/service lines. Look at the discussion about any big merger – it’s always about cultural challenges.

3 Cultural Trip-Wires

  1. The “culture” that gets all the attention isn’t the important one. Your over-arching company culture isn’t going to move the needle of change. It’s the micro-cultures that require attention. The most practical way to do it is to identify individual cultures that exist, and identify your lieutenants. Think about it as reverse-scaling (i.e. start wide and narrow your focus gradually) and take a stepped approach. Chances are you’ll be shocked at the number of distinct cultures in play.
  2. Monolithic vs. micro-services: I find the analogy to technology architecture useful. Monolithic architecture requires downtime and a full system reboot any time a change or fix is made. Modern micro-services architecture isolates single features that can be stopped, upgraded and restarted on-the-fly while the business machine keeps humming along. You need to enable micro-cultural realignments on-the-fly.
  3. Strong culture ≠ flexible culture: the list of once-mighty firms that are either gone or a shell of their former selves is long. The list of young companies that are building resistance-muscle rather than agile-muscle is long – it just hasn’t been published yet.

Culture and relationships are the hardest part. You need to identify and develop willing lieutenants who can mobilize their people, evangelize a mindset of change, and gradually grant permission to their extended teams to evaluate and apply risk with high probability of paying dividends. Think ripple effect instead of tsunami.

Above all, recognize that culture is an output. If you want to change the culture, change the input.

Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.” — Doris Kearns Goodwin

ICYMI here’s the introduction & topic list to the Unpacking Transformation 2020 series.

Thomas Irre is the founder of HK5, LLC, Practical Business Technology and Mental Self-Defense for leaders & teams.