Is Bad Culture The Problem?

The topic of organizational culture is extremely prolific now. And for good reasons. Most organizations nowadays have a really bad culture, and it is particularly bad in its ability to foster an innovative environment. But is culture the problem? In my mind, it’s a scapegoat for something else: focus. The right culture combined with the wrong focus still won’t bring success. Bad “culture” may be a symptom of the wrong focus, a prevailing and unwavering internal focus.

Internally focused organizations focus on their own profitability, maximizing brand value, increasing efficiencies, reducing cost of goods sold, and the list goes on and on. As organizations become larger and more bureaucratic, it seems like everything they do is centered on how they can help themselves, and that’s the beginning of the end. Now, of course we need to have controls, and of course, we need to make certain that we’ve addressed our own needs.

I was a lifeguard for years. And in college when I was a lifeguard, the one thing I’ll always remember is that when worse comes to worst, the lifesaver comes first. That may sound counterintuitive, but the reality is that you have to protect yourself if you’re going to go out and rescue somebody. The same is true if you want to serve your customer. You have to make sure that you’re a healthy company that has the infrastructure to deliver value. But when internal focus becomes hyper-internal focus, all hope is lost.

Internal focus spends a lot of time on blame, or what I like to call “blamestorming.” Meetings are about assessing blame for any given problem within the organization. External-focused organizations, on the other hand, like to focus on accountability. Accountability to customers, accountability to shareholders, accountability to employees, accountability to the greater good of society. It’s not about punishment; it’s about accepting responsibility for situations, so the organization can learn and grow, while helping the organization meet its objectives. Accountability doesn’t have to be negative, while blame is always negative. Internally focused organizations do a lot of blaming, whereas externally focused organizations count on accountability.

Internally focused organizations are very process driven; they love to construct methods, systems, policies, and procedures, around everything in the building. Now in many cases, that’s good. The problem is that becomes more important than people, and then you create organizations that are truly, truly sick.

I had a hard time deciding whether “external focus” fell under “Culture” or “Customer” in my anatomical scheme. I chose Customer. Why? Because it goes hand in hand with being sensitive to customer needs. And like all other components of the Customer anatomy, if it isn’t right from the beginning, no amount of “Culture” excellence will help you.