Lessons in Organizational Culture From Your Smartphone

Over the past couple of years I had the privilege of giving the introductory talk to the "Tools & Practices Workshop", an event organized by the Center for Innovative Cultures hosted by the "Bill & Vieve Gore Business School" at Westminster College in Salt Lake City (U.S.A.).

The T&PWS is a highly interactive session offering an insight in a number of tools and practices developed by high performing organization that, with minimal adaptation, could be embraced by almost every company.

The theme I was asked to explore was the connection between the culture of an organization and the way in which it operates and behaves, both internally and in its relationships with the world outside (exactly what was exemplified by the expression "tools and practices").

In preparing my talk, I kept coming up with complex images representing the obscure nature of the connection between tightly interrelated systems in which it is difficult to understand who influences what (or whom).

At the end, to make things easier, I developed a very simple model that easily explains the relationship between cultures and practices and is based on something many of us carry in our pockets: a smartphone.

When you get your smartphone -- regardless of the brand you pick -- it comes equipped with an operating system. When you turn it on, the screen populates with a number of colorful icons, each representing a more or less useful tool (what we all know as "apps"). Without the "apps" the smartphone would simply be... a phone and the sophisticated operating system would not be of much use.

The same can be said for every organization: it has its own, unique, exclusive, proprietary, operating system (the culture) and functions thanks to a number of "apps" that inspire, allow, prevent, regulate, guide, most behaviors and interactions.

In the 15 odd years I spent working for an enterprise that was known for its unique culture as much as it was appreciated for its great products (W.L. Gore & Associates), I also learned on my own skin that for a culture to stay alive, "apps" must continue to evolve and new ones develop all the time, as the organization will need to solve new problems and adapt its behavior to the changing environment.

Exactly as Android or iOs would eventually die if developers stop creating new apps', the culture of an organization would crash if it could not promote the evolution of practices and behaviors among its members.

On the other side of the spectrum, as it happens with our smartphones where apps that have no practical use do not live very long on our screens, a healthy culture will not tolerate practices and behaviors nobody uses or cares about. The only exception here may be represented by bureaucratic organizations where useless procedures and rules that exist simply because no one though about updating the policy book, tend to survive simple logic and the test of time.

When our organizations struggle we are very seldom aware (or willing to admit) that there might a problem with the "culture" and more often we simply deal with the consequences of dysfunctional apps (i.e. practices or behaviors). Hopefully the culture will allow us to take initiative and change what needs to be changed. If that is not the case, something appearing initially as a minor drawback may end up causing a fatal disaster.

When in 5 or 10 years analysts and scholars will look into the recent problems at Volkswagen they will probably tell us that what happened was the catastrophic consequence of an individual making the wrong decision. A deeper look though may reveal that a sustained number of practices and behaviors over a long period of time shaped the culture of that organization in such a way that it made those decisions inevitable.

And this is the other piece of the story (and the other end of the model): if it is a fact that each individual app comes to life because of the underlying operating system (the culture) it is also true that practices and behaviors continue to shape the culture and push it way beyond what companies say in the mission statements hanging in the boardrooms or pasted on the homepage of their websites.

The app-driven culture sure has some power as Andrew Hill, management editor of the Financial Times wrote in an article published on November 17th of last year summarizing the outcomes of the annual Drucker Forum: "Radical change starts in small steps" and "by opening up and testing new ideas from across their companies and beyond, far-sighted leaders could achieve a more radical transformation than they ever anticipated, even if it starts with small steps" (meaning: try a new app and your entire operating system will be affected).

This has also been my personal experience, both working as an Associate during my Gore days and later in my consulting practice. Very seldom have I witnessed a complete "cultural overhaul" and the installation of a brand new operating system (i.e. culture) into an existing organization. There are (few) success stories: Zappos and Holocracy may be one of those and I have been personally involved in efforts made by companies to prepare a soft cultural landing for a merger or an acquisition. In most of the cases though, as the Drucker Forum of 2014 concluded, it is the small steps (the ones you take and -- let me add -- the ones you don't) that, for better or for worse, have the biggest and most lasting impact.

Massimo Gilmozzi is a management consultant and entrepreneur based in Italy and working internationally across a number of industries. His main areas of interest are strategic development and cross-cultural organizational alignment. Before becoming a consultant in 2002, he spent more than 20 years in the medical-biotech arena first with J&J and later with WL Gore & Associates. Contact Massimo at gilmozzi@acmeconsulting.eu, via Linkedin, or Twitter.