Chapter 18 : Culture
from "Creative Company" By Andy Law "how St Luke's became the ad agency to end all ad agencies."

Do you work somewhere that has a strong company culture?

What do I mean by that? 'Company culture'? Actually, it's quite a vague concept, weightless yet omnipresent, ardently defended yet invisible.

You will know if you have a company culture. You will know because it will be referred to by your co-workers ('Don't worry, it always takes a few weeks to get into place'). You will know because you will feel acceptance or rejection ('She's just not one of us. She's too . . . um . . . er . . . you know'). You will know because your boss will tell you ('It's OK, what you're doing. Don't get me wrong. It's just that it's not the way we do things around here').

All work places have codes of conduct, histories, habits, routines, nicknames, catch phrases, myths, mission statements, Chairman's statements, objectives, strategies, systems, procedures. Merge them all together and you can get what might be passed off as company culture. But the real thing is decidedly different and is distinctive from the many false cultures that can be found operating deep within companies. These false cultures come in a number of forms. Below I describe five that I can instantly recognize.

I guess at this point I should assert my own definitions. I think a culture is very different from a vision, and both of these are very different from a mission. They ought to be defined, because then their role is made clear. By that, I am not suggesting that all companies need a vision,or a mission, or indeed a culture in order to be successful. I would, however, say that with them, you are likely to be more successful.

A vision is something you aim for. A long shot that you know you will never fully achieve. Or if you do, it would dramatically change the company you are in. It is an endless pursuit. Our vision at St Luke's is 'To Open Minds'.

A mission is the method by which you aim to reach your vision. 0uts is 'By Creating Fascination'.

A culture is ... well ... I like how Ralph Stacey defined company cultures in his excellent book Managing The Unknowable:

'Culture is a set of beliefs or assumptions that a group of people share concerning how to see things, how to interpret events, what it is valid to question, what answers are acceptable, how to behave toward others, and how to do things. The culture of a group of people develops as they associate with each other. The most important parts of it are unconscious, and they cannot be imposed from outside, even by top management.'

This is 'proper culture' for me, because it is honest in what it describes and practical in how it affects a company. Personally I fear cultures that will not change, have to be constantly articulated or which cannot thrive invisibly and instructively in the hearts and minds of every employee.

Stacey's culture is based on beliefs or assumptions that you all share. But not all types of businesses can be bothered with beliefs or assumptions unless they belong to the boss. 'Stop pussyfooting around and give me the sales data. I didn't get where I am today by believing in beliefs and assumptions,' the fictional CJ, head of Sunshine Desserts, might say. In fact the pursuit of the bottom line not only drives culture into a corner, it also dangerously and dismissively reconfigures it as niceynicey, soft stuff to 'keep the troops happy'.

The presence and/or prevalence of the culture in your work place is defined by the type of organisation you work for. Figure 3, first shown to me by Dr. Bart Sayle, provides a useful tool to plot how individuals in society prefer to conduct their lives and manage personal strategies within their work. It has a simple premise. You either work alone or in groups of two or more. And you either like to be bound by specific rules or prefer to make agreements and unwritten laws bound by common consent.

How do you square up? (And there are no right or wrong answers.) Are you the sort of person that believes in groups of people, teams maybe, or departments? Do you like to know exactly where you are going and how things will pan out for you? You will find yourself to the right of this diagram, if that is so.

Or are you attracted to the personal charisma and skill sets of one person, like Richard Branson or Bill Gates, or the person whose name is on the letterhead (Tom Rooney Esg - Master Carpenter)? If so, you will find yourself on the left of this diagram.

Do you like to have a written handbook of 'do's and don'ts'? Are there fixed procedures for doing things that you can recite? Do you have rigid salary grades and enjoy them, not least because everyone is treated with systematic fairness? If you do then you will find yourself at the top of this chart.

Or do you make it up as it goes along? Do you feel that there are 'different strokes for different folks' ('Let's all take a half-day off on all Fridays from May to September. Everyone agreed?'). Do you change your views and systems according to the market, the weather, the people you have around you? If you recognise this kind of environment, then you will find yourself at the bottom of the chart.

Figure 3: Cultures are Defined by Groups and Rules

                                                  Need Rules 
Individuals ---------------------------|------------------------------- Group 
                                           Enjoy Agreements

If you are in the top right corner, you enjoy hierarchy. This corner is the definition of a group of people joined by rules that they, or their superiors, need to have in order to retain direction and control. The rules will be a mixture of legal requirements (by the way, there are very few legal obligations a company has to meet) and company codes (there will be hundreds of these). What time you start in the morning and what time you clock off. Who can make what decision and who can commit what budget. Who reports to whom, when and where. And so on. These are codified and logged, and handed out to you the day you join.

Most companies are in this top right comer, as are most democracies. Democracies, in fact, pride themselves on a system of government that is preordained and inoculated against abuse or miscarriage of justice. The rules that establish exactly how, when and where you vote, for example, are well laid out. Whilst everybody may not know or care about the detail of the rules of the organisation or government, the broad disciplinary procedures are usually well known. The companies in the top right corner create lines which you may or may not cross depending on who you are within the system. For some the lines are thin and can be debated or crossed for individual, specific reasons. For others the lines are thick and send out messages - 'Cross this line at your peril'. These companies may flourish in this corner of the diagram, and individuals within them may enjoy sharing the same love of highly systematised procedures, but not all will. There will be those individuals who occupy different corners of the diagram from the company they are in, and the company of friends and associates they keep in and out of the work place. Being a fish out of water in the work place is a terrifying, but widespread malaise. Most of the time you keep your deeply felt differences to yourself, until you feel you can make a successful challenge, or until you can make a successful departure. Doing this puts you under enormous stress.

If you are personally in the bottom right comer, you would want to seek out a company that others (and possibly you as well) will call a 'cult' or a 'sect'. Companies here are not hierarchies, they are organisationally much flatter. Instead of rules, companies in this comer subscribe to 'Sect' and 'cult' are pejorative and other possible words like 'family' or 'dan', used outside of their first and obvious meanings, suggest zealous religious groups, or conjure up images of Bringham Young (who led the Mormons out of Illinois in 1846 and established Salt Lake City as the base for Mormon colonising), or the Cosa Nostra even. Apple of the early 80s was a company like this. Steve Jobs would tell his fellow workers that they were going to create something insanely great. Insanity is fine in this corner - if that's where the leader is leading you!

If you think you live in the bottom left comer, you are in a personality driven organisation. Hierarchical or flat, it makes no difference. Entrepreneurs and dictators are to be found here. Sometimes the dictators are benign, sometimes not.

The personality will infuse and infect the whole organisation with their dynamism and entrepreneurial flair. Rules are pointless. People here make it up instinctively as they go along. Intuition replaces information. Virgin is like this. It is Richard Branson's company whether you like it or not. And if you don't, maybe you should leave, because things won't change. If you do, you will flourish. You will be well looked after and made to feel 'one of the gang'.

If you are in the top left corner of the diagram, you are probably in the worst of all places. You are an individual who conforms to a set of personal guidelines or a personal interpretation of the company's rule book. You are a 'Jobsworth', as we say in the UK. 'Oh, I couldn't do it like that, it's more than my job's worth'. Severe cases here are lonely and depressed because they wonder why they are amidst people who adhere to different rules, different principles even.

Are there any organisations like this? I think so. Public services companies, particularly the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS is Europe's biggest employer, with over a million staff on its books. Despite a requirement to provide health care, it does not have an overall mission statement. It is often down to individual medical practitioners to make up their own rules. People in the NHS are often there out of a sense of duty springing from a personal desire to help. The same duty-driven people complain all the time about the NHS and individually hold different ideas of how to improve it. Take the issue of funding, for example. It will set chief executive against consultant, doctor against nurse. Voters in an election will hold a view, patients will speak first hand, the government will take a different stance. beliefs and abide by agreements bound together by trust. Interestingly there are no real positive words for companies like this.

This diagram cannot represent tidy compartments. Human nature does not so easily conform to these stereotypes. Rather, the diagram operates best when seen as a series of 'magnetic pulls'.

The Body Shop is emotionally centred in the bottom left comer. Its staff pull it to the bottom right and the City of London's rigorous financial requirements pull it to the top right. (There is nothing more unnerving to a finance man than constantly changing rules!) An individual in one corner may belong to a company in another and may do well as the 'rogue gene'or 'token maverick'.

Where you and your workplace are centred, the directions you are pulled define an atmosphere of working conditions that sometimes add up to a culture. But if your company is pulled in more than one direction, one man's culture is another man's stricture.

Nike's culture was for years centred on its slogan 'Just Do It', which is a kind of encouragement for everyone to join them in the bottom right corner. Apple's culture of the 1980s was that of David versus Goliath. The small (but smart) guy who was up against a brutish dominant force (IBM, the Big Blue). Virgin employees are sent by 'Richard' to execute his next brilliant idea. They are entrepreneurs in his image - restless, slightly disorganised, creative, intuitive and almost always successful. Virgin is a winning brand concept.

Cultures that are badly assembled, or wafer thin, fall prey to the vagaries of my simple diagram. They are quickly vaporised when different agendas come to the fore (profit generation versus ethical purchasing, for example) and are equally quickly invoked to smother a low-quality product ('We're a distribution-led company, we've got to keep the lines moving and keep the sales force happy; there's always someone out there who will buy our product').

Ralph Stacey's definition of culture clearly places an emphasis on shared views. Strong cultures are like the wind. Invisible, but you know when they blow and everyone feels the same force, from the same direction. I find it important to remember this as I ponder what I call the 'Five-P' types of unreal cultures. I see manifestations of these 5-Ps a lot (and at times in St. Luke's), and I like these manifestations much less than what I choose to call the 'Proper (or Pure) Culture'- i.e. Stacey's. In fact, I worry about them, because I see companies adhering to a cultural mantra that is inconsistent with its present stakeholders or trading environment. These cultures are designed to protect and serve the community of people in the company, but more often they dupe and debilitate them. They are insidious cultures, because they can all live in the body of one company at the same time. The 'Five Ps' are: Past Cultures, Pile-It-High Cultures, Prescribed Cultures, Pseudo Cultures and Precious Cultures.

Image of Creative Company: How St. Luke's Became "the Ad Agency to End All Ad Agencies"
Author: Andy Law
Publisher: Wiley (1999)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

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