Your Culture is Your Best Teacher

culture_iconIt was the spring of 1981 and I had just joined Hewlett-Packard as a sales representative.   I was drinking from the fire hose.   It was my first sales job and I was learning a new career as well as a new company.  It was a heady time for HP.  We were undisputed leaders in our market and were growing rapidly in the general business expansion of that time.  What I observed around me was a great deal of youthful energy, and the primacy of our new products and their contribution to the markets we served.  One example of that energy was how we interacted with our product divisions.  When the divisions came to town, it was a natural rallying event for the sales force.  We gathered after hours, shared drinks and refreshments with the visitors, and then grilled them mercilessly for the latest intelligence about markets, competitors, and new products.  They in turn grilled us for what we were seeing on the front lines.  It was intense, but it happened in an atmosphere of shared commitment and collegiality.  I found it wildly invigorating.

Looking back on it, I was learning powerful lessons from the corporate and local cultures within HP.  As a company, our values included a commitment to technology and making a differentiated contribution to the state of the art in our markets.  That had started with Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1939 and it was a cornerstone of HP’s culture.  The behavioral norms I observed in the Dallas sales team included the willingness to dedicate after hours time to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the visit and the importance of blending professional and social interaction in building teamwork across the company.  I was also figuring out how to get things done inside HP.  The factory relationships that I built over a beer and snacks would enable me later to find my way to the right product development team to get a special feature I would need to close a major sale.  I didn’t learn that in a breakout session within a newcomers’ orientation course.  We were living it every day, and I learned it in a way that no workshop could teach me.

As a consultant, I have seen many very promising change initiatives die on the vine for lack of full adoption.  I believe that there are important considerations here for leaders who are considering some form of training to drive an organizational change:

Aggressively test the new ideas and behaviors against the prevailing cultures.  Are they complementary or likely to clash?

Where the new behaviors are not tightly linked to or supported by the culture, treat the project as a change management challenge.  Acknowledge the time, effort, and money it will take to integrate the change into the DNA of the organization.  Does the benefit justify the investment?

Consider the long-term impact that you are seeking. As cultures change slowly, it will likely take years for the organization to fully embrace the new ways as “just the way we do things around here”.  Can you afford the time?  Will the benefits endure over the time it takes to realize them?

Your culture is your best teacher.  Respect it, and put it to work on your most important change initiatives.