It’s not enough to build a culture your teams can “live with”

Posted on May 3, 2014.

What did the printer do to you?

I suffer from a chronic condition. It’s nothing life-threatening and I am lucky that I have a relatively mild form of it. However, left untreated, it makes day-to-day life quite uncomfortable. I was first diagnosed when I was 22 and for close to 20 years now have been taking one form or another of daily medicine to alleviate the symptoms of this condition. Over the years the quantity and frequency of the medicine has gone down. At the beginning I was taking 9 pills a day whereas today I take between 2 and 4 at most. I see my doctor at least every six months where I undergo a fairly superficial examination, a quick discussion of how I’m feeling and re-authorization of my prescriptions. There’s rarely, if ever, any talk about curing me of this disease. Everything that’s ever been done for me or even discussed by my medical advisors has been in the name of allowing me to *live with* the condition.

Occasionally, I’ll look up recent research trends on this condition. Most of the time, there’s nothing. Why? Because the ROI of curing the disease is significantly lower than treating the symptoms.

This attitude of treating the symptoms, not the cause, is prevalent in many of the companies I work with as well. Symptoms are easy to see and target.

It takes us forever to ship a product!

Employees are leaving!

The competition is killing us!

Sales are down!

When diagnosing what’s going on with their organization, leaders often do exactly what my doctors do — they asses the visible needs of the company and prescribe a course of action meant to quickly cure the symptoms. They adopt “Agile” to create the perception that product is shipping faster. They offer a change of project or a trip to a conference to convince restless employees to stay. They ramp up marketing efforts to drown out the competition’s superior product. They organize sales competitions or worse, cull staff to motivate the sales team. All of these activities are focused on achieving an immediate, surface-level sense of improvement. They’re treating the symptoms.

Years of user research practice have taught us that these surface-level pain points are known as expressed needs. They’re the easily uncovered pain points of the organization. As a leader you can throw short-term fixes at these problems hoping to cover up the symptoms but they’ll just keep cropping back up.

This isn’t a new or novel finding. It’s been happening forever and yet, very rarely does it get better. Why is that? Because digging into the cause of the symptoms — the implied and ultimately latent needs of the organization —  will reveal the true origins of these issues — corrosive culture.

Changing culture is messy. It’s costly too. A drastic shift in culture will push some people out and may delay some product launches. Most of all, it requires hard work — the kind of work that doesn’t yield an immediate ROI. It’s easier to get the organization to *live with* its symptoms than to cure it of its core cultural ills. The shortsighted outlook is that there is no guarantee a new culture will yield a more productive, innovative and engaged staff. Expending energy on culture cures that may fail is seen as a waste. The longsighted view is that without a fundamental change the company will never exceed its current best and will ultimately suffer an exodus of talent, reduction in quality of output and slipping market share.

Take the time to research cures to your company’s symptoms. The ROI of that work will manifest over time as engaged staff, better products and higher profits. It won’t be immediate but you’ll be creating a workplace your teams can more than “live with.”


2 thoughts on “It’s not enough to build a culture your teams can “live with”

  1. Nice read Jeff. Culture is huge … what makes are some of the elements of culture towards creating better outcomes and what would you want elements would you want to address first?

    1. I would start with implicit trust. If you hire well (a whole separate discipline and challenge) then you should start your employees and teams off with trust. Let them do what they do best and ensure they have what they need to do so. Everything flows from there.

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