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'Clockwork' organization trumps investments in 'culture'

I see companies all the time talk all about their culture and how they support their culture. Generally when i see this stuff it makes me wanna barf. Why?

When companies say they 'invest in their culture' what are they doing?

When you look at what these companies that brag about culture are actually doing/investing in to achieve this 'great culture'... you tend to see things like:

  • a fancy office with games and stuff (and everyone that is using it is often in their own 'cliques'... and not actually meeting anyone through it)

  • lots of social events (to which a part of the staff attend regularly and another part avoid like the plague)

  • signs they put in the office and paint on the walls

I've worked in or helped a few such organizations over the years... and I consider them as having among the poorest cultures I have seen. Why? Because the cultures are often very cliquey and they often turn a blind eye to some of the behaviors of the leadership team.

The more a diverse group of people hang out together the more they divide. It is just a fact.

It kind of reminds me of my days in Cornell when I was choosing a fraternity to join. I'd walk into the jock house.. and be like... hmmm no, that's not really me.

Then I'd walk into some other frat and it would be a bunch of nerdy guys who were really nice guys.. but i'd be like "hmmm no.. I don't wanna be considered a nerd." Even though the guys seemed like a geniune group of nice guys.

And therefore in my view, cultures that are based on hanging out socially with others will all eventually evolve into separation of groups. It is just the way the world works.

In a way fraternities and sororities are a testament to this. It's a tradition with probably 200+ years of heritage and reflects the reality of human nature.

Ever try working in a place where most of the folks have worked together for 10-20 years (which is quite rare these days)?

I'd seen one as a consultant... and man that shit was cliquey as hell!! I mean some of the people hated each others' guts and weren't afraid to show it.

Am I saying not to hang out with others and not form friendships?

No, of course not. That is also a healthy part of human nature. But I am saying... do not use that as the foundation of your company culture.

Now... for what I propose is a better approach

So i've managed teams since i was about 22 yrs old (ie. 20+ yrs ago.. since i am an old fart now..haha) and have probably managed a couple hundred people in total.

And i was pretty much always a stickler for structure & organisation. ie. I make processes out of everything and i generally dont mind annoying the crap out of people till they follow it.. haha

But anyway aside from me being strange... it does relate to something i personally have found extremely important.

In that I deem that the most important thing a CEO or manager can do is to get his or her team to work like clockwork.

Why and what does this mean? To "work like clockwork"

1. Everyone needs to be organized.

No exceptions. ie. anyone who has lots of unread emails, slack messages, clickup notifications, etc needs to either learn to fix it. Or they are out.

2. Anyone that applies a strategy of replying to specific (typically only senior) people is out.

That is a pure cancer to the org & the culture for many reasons.

3. Fast response time is key

When others write to you.. you need to respond within an SLA that is always less than a day. If you can't respond within a day.. you drop a note and give an eta and reason as to why you need longer.

4. Getting the team to work like clockwork is more important in my view than any other attributes of the team.

Why? Because it defines the efficiency/output/communication of the team. And therefore it determines how quickly they iterate, help each other, and align to a single goal.

5. The leadership team needs to exemplify it

Some of the best leaders i've worked for in my career would respond to an intern within 24 hrs regardless of how busy they were. Because the reality is that it typically only takes 20-30 seconds.

And a CEO that preaches about culture in the townhall and than ignores messages sent by junior members of his team is a hippocrate. Pure and simple.

6. 'Clockwork' organization to me actually defines your culture in many ways

And in my experience its a shitload more important than how often you do team building activites like going to the bar together.

Because it crosses geographies and is inclusive of everyone.. including the folks that perhaps do not want to go to the bar.

It is the efficiency of how you communicate and work together as a group that define your relationships. Rather than politics and friendships between specific individuals (which are often influsive of some, exclusive of others).

Think I'm wrong? Try this experiment...

Find 20 people selected at random in your company and give them an anonymous survey to fill with these two questions:

  • Q1: If you worked in a company where there were tons of company activities and we went to the bar each week... on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.. how would you rate that? (Note that some people would rate this a 10... but id be willing to guess at least 3 would give this a mediocre rating)

  • Q2: Now if you worked in a company where everyone you worked with, regardless of seniority, was extremely organized and responded to you rapidly and honestly. And there was next to no politics. How would you rate that on 1-10? (Note that probably almost everyone would put this near a 10.. and I personally would fire anyone that gave it less than a 8 because they are probably highly disorganized.. haha)

And so you might ask.. well Ken... the two are not mutually exclusive.

You can have lots of company activities AND work in an organized way. Right?

And here is where a few of my observations post-COVID play an interesting role. I was contracting at a couple companies where the team was created more-or-less during COVID and was completely remote.

And since its relatively difficult to form strong personal relationships when there is no office and all calls are work-related... the team more-or-less focused only on their job.

At the time time it was nearly impossible to detect any politics. And note that I am a company 'outsider' since i was contracting) so I consider myself mostly impartial. ie. I didn't really have any vested interest in the politics.

Than as COVID let up they began to meet physically in an office sometimes. And a couple of things happened:

  • after you meet folks in-person you start to judge them and put them in a box more. I, myself, found that I did it even though I tried not to.

  • because now instead of judging them purely on how they work and communicate in a work setting.. you are judging them for things that you see outside the work context. You're seeing who they are in reality.

  • this then influences how you relate to them.. and therefore it actually accelerates politics and cliques.

And to some extent I actually think the team was more effective and worked better as a team before they began hanging out physically and doing team events.

So perhaps the ideal culture... is actually focusing the whole org on working like 'clockwork'.

And not the stuff that companies today do to 'improve their culture'. As most of that ends up dividing or at least alienating certain people, while bringing smaller pockets of people closer together (ie. it breeds more politics).

Because at the end of the day... that is human nature.

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