Creating Cultural Coherence in Organizations


RIght Side of the Road

Imagine, for a moment, if the difference in driving laws and behaviors were as significant between New York and New Jersey as they are between the U.S. and the U.K. For starters, people would probably avoid driving between the two states, and when they did, the chances for accidents would likely increase.

I drove for many years in the United Kingdom. Unlike in the U.S., getting a driver's license in the U.K. is not a teenage rite of passage. For starters, the U.K. has a well-developed public transportation and railway system that connects cities, towns, and villages nationwide, so many people can work, shop, and travel without the need for a car. Owning a car in the U.K. is also more expensive than in the U.S, with fuel prices that can be three times the price of gas in the States, costly annual vehicle registration, and high insurance rates. The standard for obtaining a driver's license in the U.K. is also higher than in the U.S., with aspirants undergoing extensive training before being awarded the privilege of being able to drive. Another feature of driving in the U.K. is narrow roads, one-way streets where you would expect two-way, automobiles obstructing roadways due to ubiquitous on-street parking, pervasive blind curves, soft solders, and omnipresent potholes.

While the U.S. is not immune to these problems, they are exponentially less frequent. But, despite the wide lanes, well-maintained roads, and fewer obstructions on motorways in the U.S., I always felt much safer driving in the U.K. because of how well-trained U.K. drivers are and how the road conditions require them to be more vigilant when driving. As a rule, in the U.K., drivers are more competent, polite, and aware of their surroundings. For example, if you put your turn signal on, you can expect the driver in the lane into which you are merging to slow down and flash his lights as a sign that you are alright to enter. In contrast, when driving in the U.S., a turn signal is often seen subconsciously as a challenge to surrounding drivers, who either passively-aggressively ignore the signal and dwell in your blind spot or, in some cases, behave even more aggressively by intentionally blocking you from merging.

I know that some tend to think that people in the state where they live are the “worst” drivers. But I have lived and driven in Utah, California, Texas, Alaska, and North Carolina. My assessment is that drivers in all these states share similar behaviors and that the norms and values associated with driving in the U.S. are mostly interstate. The only consistent observation I have made about driving in the U.S. where people tend to be worse drivers is in large cities. But then this is perhaps a symptom of the fact that there is a higher concentration of drivers on the road in and near big cities. In sum, my opinion is that the driving experience in the U.K. is much different from that of the U.S., with drivers being more competent and aware in the U.K., while road infrastructure tends to be better in the U.S. and with the behaviors of drivers in the U.S. being mostly uniform and not meaningfully different from state to state.

Even if you disagree that driver behavior in the U.S. is mostly uniform across states, it is a matter of fact that driving in the U.K. is very different, if for no other reason than there are different traffic laws, abundant roundabouts, and people drive on the left instead of the right. Imagine, for a moment, if the difference in driving laws and behaviors were as significant between New York and New Jersey as they are between the U.S. and the U.K. For starters, people would probably avoid driving between the two states, and when they did, the chances for accidents would likely increase. Fortunately, while there may be trivial differences in the laws of the road and driving behaviors between New York and New Jersey, the overwhelming commonalities create a coherence—a commonly shared and consistent understanding—that facilitates interstate travel on the motorways.

The Right Ingredients: Mission, Vision, Values

...despite the fact that no small amount of ink has been spilled on the topic, confusion around mission, vision, and values remains.

The interstate coherence of driving in the United States versus the international incoherence between driving in the United States compared to the UK is a natural manifestation of divergent, if minor, differences in beliefs and values in each culture. This is both expected and normal, given that the United States and the UK are different countries, after all. However, unfortunately, this intercultural incoherence all too often exists within organizations. From department to department, divergence exists, creating organizational incoherence that eventually metastasizes into organizational atrophy. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this phenomenon. However, while the solution is simple in that it is not complex, it is difficult in that it requires deliberate, focused, and sustained effort. In fact, there is no real end to the solution, per se—it is an ongoing process and journey, not a map with a destination.

The solution to avoiding or repairing internal organizational incoherence is twofold. The first thing that must be done is to create a consistency of understanding of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. The second thing, which follows the first, is consistency in how people behave relative to the commonly understood organizational mission, vision, and values. But of course, before efforts to create consistency in understanding and behavioral application of organizational mission, vision, and values can be taken on, mission, vision, and values must first be established. Alas, despite the fact that no small amount of ink has been spilled on the topic, confusion around mission, vision, and values remains. The most useful way for me to understand and explain mission, vision, and values is by describing the relationship among the three and how each one is part of a whole that, when properly formulated, creates the core operating ethos and culture of an organization based upon the questions of How? What? and Why?

An organization’s values are attitudinal and behavioral manifestations of core beliefs that speak to the organization's cultural How?, as in “This is how we do things around here.” It is not always necessary to unearth the underlying beliefs in order to articulate values. However, if there is a disconnect between a deeply held belief and an espoused value, the espoused value is not going to take root. It is also important to note that the "how," as it relates to values, is not the "how" in process. The former is about higher-level attitudes and behaviors, whereas the latter is about tasks. Organizational values are the pillars that hold up an organization’s mission. The mission of an organization is what the organization is living into. Simply put, an organization’s mission describes what an organization is doing. Lastly, the vision of an organization answers the Why? It describes the future that the organization is creating by fulfilling its mission. It is critical to understand that mission, vision, and values are interrelated and, taken together, have the potential to create a healthy and productive organizational culture. But, if you espouse values that do not animate the organization’s mission, then all you have is ink on paper. Also, if you are executing a mission that is not related to the future you want to create, then all you have is an empty slogan. Mission, vision, and values, in order to be effective, must first and foremost be a part of a coherent greater whole. This coherent state creates the crucial context based on which people within an organization orient themselves


Asking and Acting on the Right Questions: Not by Money Alone

Because of the immediacy and quantifiable outcomes associated with it, business strategy often invades and preoccupies the headspace of organizational decision-makers, with little time left over to think, talk about, and maintain the organization’s mission, vision, and values...

On some level, many organizational leaders understand either intuitively, or because they have been taught, that an organization’s mission, vision, and values are important…at least important enough to talk about. In my professional experience as an organizational consultant and having been an employee and leader in many different organizations over the course of two decades, I know that many organizations view establishing, creating a commonly understood interpretation of, and living by organizational mission, vision, and values as a task secondary to organizational strategy. This is often the case because, with strategy, the relationship between actions and quantitative outcomes is much clearer. For example, the strategic decision to acquire another company has an immediate and important effect on an organization’s financial bottom line. Because of the immediacy and quantifiable outcomes associated with it, business strategy often invades and preoccupies the headspace of organizational decision-makers, with little time left over to think, talk about, and maintain the organization’s mission, vision, and values, except for perhaps the perfunctory meeting or two. Even when leaders take time for the organization’s mission, vision, and values, it tends to be a sort of short-burst effort, with outcomes that quickly recede.

But time alone is not enough. I am reminded of an instance when I was a part of a group of leaders who were attempting to work out a new organization’s mission, vision, and values. There were probably 20 of us directly involved in the effort. No small amount of time was spent on this effort, with meetings lasting for hours on a weekly basis over the course of several months. In all, I would estimate that no fewer than a combined total of one thousand hours were spent working out the mission, vision, and values of the organization. Upon completion of the effort, there was an all-hands meeting where, with much fanfare, the organization’s newly minted mission, vision, and values were introduced to a workforce of about 150 people to a rather lukewarm reception. The reception was lukewarm because it was painfully obvious to everyone how inconsistent the mission, vision, and values were with the reality of the culture the leadership had already created. Even though the reception from the staff was unenthusiastic, the leadership could still have salvaged the work they had done. Indeed, the many hours spent in meetings notwithstanding, all of the leaders’ real work was still ahead of them; they still needed to create a commonly understood interpretation of the mission, values, and vision and live by the mission, vision, and values—a process that does not have an end date. Alas, this did not occur.

One example of a value that the leadership identified as important to animate the organization’s mission was for people to feel free to “question everything.” There were good and healthy discussions and debates among the leadership about this particular value. In the end, everyone eventually saw the importance of valuing the ability for people to question the status quo and remain openly curious without fear of reprisal, especially since the organization had an innovation-based mission. However, one of the concerns that was brought up during the discussion about the “question everything” value is how broadly open it was to interpretation. A few members of the leadership team argued that some staff might take the espoused value too literally. However, this concern was overruled by the majority who claimed that people would interpret it as the leadership intended. The value of questioning everything was probably the most provocative espoused value that came out of the leadership confab. Not surprisingly, people met the value with immediate skepticism. There were a few brave souls who attempted to exercise the value. Unfortunately, these individuals were met with swift rebukes and eye rolls from leadership. It turned out that the leadership liked the idea of questioning everything in the abstract, but could not abide it in the concrete. The leadership wanted people to question things that they wanted them to question, and not—gasp—things that caused leadership to squirm. The value of questioning everything literally lasted a few days before it became hollow and meaningless. I recall a colleague of mine attempting to stand up for people who were trying to honestly and genuinely live by the spirit of questioning everything, only to be ridiculed and dismissed. While the leadership got off on the right foot with its effort to identify, discuss, debate, and decide on the organization's mission, vision, and values, the leadership failed to realize that all of its work was still ahead of it.

There are plenty of people who view even the act of establishing, let alone living by, organizational mission, vision, and values as a trendy but empty exercise. Many organizations go through the motions, doing the absolute minimum by formally establishing their missions, visions, and values. Then, shortly thereafter, they point to how ineffective their efforts were because they do not see an immediate and quantifiable payoff. I say “do the absolute minimum” because establishing a mission, a vision, and values, while an important first step, does nothing if the leadership is not willing to do the heavy lifting required to see the payoff. In fact, establishing a mission, a vision, and values can actually have a paradoxical effect, causing deep cynicism and low morale, if critical follow-on steps are not taken. The two things that follow from establishing organizational mission, vision, and values are, as I mentioned before, creating a common and shared understanding of the mission, values, and vision, and then animating the mission, vision, and values by living them. This starts at the top of an organization and is perhaps the most important thing leaders can do to shape the cultures of their organizations.

I concede that it can be difficult to have the discipline and consistency required to make an organization’s espoused mission, vision, and values lived ones. Nevertheless, the proposition is straightforward. One thing that helps to create consistency of understanding and behavior across an organization where its mission, vision, and values are concerned is to set a simple test by asking three questions of the mission statement, each value, and the organizational vision before etching them into granite. The first question is “Is it straightforward?” In other words, is the wording literally simple and understandable? I have read countless missions, visions, and values statements that are written in such obtuse managementese as to be literally completely meaningless. The second question is “Is the intent clear?” It is important to be cautious of statements that are overly vague, as vagueness also leads to meaninglessness. If people cannot find meaning in the statements, they are worthless, and you have wasted your time in developing them. The third question is “How actionable is the statement?” Even if a statement is plainly worded and clear in its intent, it must be something that people can act upon.

Cars, Retail, and Chicken

...a drop in financial indicators, such as stock price, revenue, etc. are lagging indicators of the health of an organization and, by the time these things start to go south, it is usually too late to turn the ship around.

These three questions are not meant to imply that statements cannot still be high-level and capture even idealistic ambitions. Take, for example, the mission statement of Tesla: “…to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” To my mind, this mission statement captures all the elements of the abovementioned measures: it is written in plain English, it is clear in its intent, and it is actionable. What’s more, the mission is aspirational and even idealistic—a quality that is becoming increasingly scarce in our commoditized world. While Tesla’s mission is ambitious, it is one that employees can live out in their daily work activities, it distinguishes Tesla as a company, and it can be evidently manifest in the myriad activities that are required to operate an automobile manufacturer.

Another example of a much-maligned but, in my opinion, effective mission statement is Walmart’s: “Saving people money so they can live better.” This mission statement says nothing about superior customer service or high-quality products. In fact, customer service and product quality are things Walmart willingly sacrifices on the altar of “saving people money,” and customers are willing collaborators in this deal. While there are arguments to be made about the potential harm Walmart’s value proposition brings to communities, employees, and the globe, the point is that how Walmart operates is consistent with its mission, and, for better or worse, its mission seems to be resonating with consumers, given that the company had a market capitalization of nearly 300 billion in 2017. When people go to Walmart, they expect, first and foremost, low prices. Presently, Walmart’s mission statement is both reflected in the experience of the customer and drives a profitable value proposition. If, for example, Walmart suddenly started to emphasize customer service at the expense of low prices, that could destroy their business model, and it probably would not be too long before we started seeing dilapidated and abandoned Walmart stores with empty parking lots across the globe. The point is that, love it or hate it, Walmart’s mission is reflected in their culture, and consumers continue to respond to the value proposition Walmart is offering. As long as those things remain aligned, Walmart will likely continue to succeed, and in so small part due to its culture, which is congruent with its mission.

A final example of a company where mission, values, and vision align to create a coherent organizational culture is Chick-fil-A. While controversy has swirled around Chick-fil-A for years due to its founder’s views on same-sex marriage and its Christian orientation, Chick-fil-A made a cool eight billion dollars in 2016 (that is more than twice what Chipotle made in 2016). Chick-fil-A’s mission statement reads: “…to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” While the first sentence of the statement is difficult to quantify (although some may see it in Chick-fil-A’s culture), the latter part is where the company’s real competitive advantage lies, in my opinion. It is no mistake that Chick-fil-A soars above the competition in the fast-food marketplace. Many Americans are conditioned to have a mediocre, at best, and unpleasant, at worst, experience at fast-food restaurants. In fact, Americans’ pivot toward fast-casual restaurants in the early 2000s was, in my assessment, driven in part by a dissatisfaction with the quality of food and service at traditional fast-food restaurants. Consumers reached a tipping point at which juncture the value proposition of cheap and fast food at the expense of service and quality began to wane. The shift in consumer attitudes was not enough to put any major fast-food restaurants out of business, but it did create an opening for competitors like Chipotle and Panera Bread. Chick-fil-A was savvy to create a culture that only slightly deviated from the traditional value proposition of fast-food restaurants by offering food fast and cheap but with “my pleasure” customer service, to which Americans have resoundingly responded “Yes!” This is where Chink-fil-A’s desire to positively influence people is manifest in its culture— “My pleasure!”  

What sets companies like Tesla, Walmart, and Chick-fil-A apart from many other companies is that not only has the leadership in those companies put in the effort to develop mission, vision, and values that meet the threefold test of salience (i.e., understandable, clear in intent, and actionable) but the mission, vision, and values of these companies, at least in part, have permeated the organizations’ cultures by creating an aligned understanding and, therefore, coherent culture, across the organizations that reflect their mission, vision, and values. While straightforward, this is not an easy row to hoe, and many organizations fail at this task. In fact, some organizations have become so disenchanted with the concept of mission, vision, and values that they eschew it altogether. Dell, for example, has a diffuse and vague “Culture Code.” In my assessment, Dell’s culture code—which is likely an attempt to be unaccountable for actionable and understandable mission, vision, and values—is a contributing factor to Dell’s lived culture, also known as “Dell hell,” both for employees and consumers. Yes, Dell, by some measures, is a successful company with a market capitalization close to 17 billion dollars in 2017. However, I predict, somewhat boldly perhaps, that while Dell’s stock price remains relatively stable for now, it will eventually be foreclosed on by the people that matter most—customers and employees.

See, that’s the point. Companies—especially for-profit companies, although not exclusively—are increasingly falling prey to the temptation to put financial shareholders above employees and customers. As I have argued before, a drop in financial indicators, such as stock price, revenue, etc. are lagging indicators of the health of an organization and, by the time these things start to go south, it is usually too late to turn the ship around. Leading indicators are employee morale, employee engagement, and the rate of attrition. When an organization’s culture is healthy, is has a mission, vision, and values that are understandable, clear in intent, and actionable, and a narrow gap between espoused mission, vision, and values and lived mission, vision, and values. All of this manifests as places where people are personally invested in the work that they do, where there is a common understanding across the organization of its mission, vision, and values as leaders work to live by and hold others accountable to the mission, vision, and values.

A Dose of Compassion

...compassion grants us the freedom to move through the complex event of life as a dance and not as Sisyphus, forever pushing his boulder up a hill only to watch, in disappointment, as it rolls back to the bottom.

All of this is not to say that there will not be “noise in the system”—industry terminology to describe the fact that there are always going to be some incongruences between what is said and what is done. But I believe that while no organization or person is going to be perfect, compassion can cover a multitude of sins. I say “no one is perfect” with some reluctance because this ubiquitous phrase (along with, “We all make mistakes.”) dignifies a deeply held and profoundly false notion—that there is such a thing as perfection. When we expect perfection of ourselves, our families, our leaders, our organizations, and our societies, we view the world through a paradigm that creates a perpetual cycle of self-loathing, disappointment, and antipathy toward others. The antidote to this is not to give ourselves and others a pass because they or we are not perfect or have made mistakes, but to have compassion for the human condition, which is one of beauty precisely because of its so-called imperfection.

Compassion is not mercy. Mercy is opening the door to the prisoner’s cell; compassion is holding his hand as he serves his sentence. Compassion is the act of love toward others, especially those with whom we disagree or because of whom we are aggrieved. And compassion grants us the freedom to move through the complex event of life as a dance and not as Sisyphus, forever pushing his boulder up a hill only to watch, in disappointment, as it rolls back to the bottom. I know I could have used more compassion from my superiors in the past that would have been mutually beneficial, and I certainly could have shown more compassion toward many of my previous superiors, which would have given us enough air to breathe past our moments of frustration, instead of becoming mired and eventually lost in them.

Closing Thoughts

Yes, this work requires determination and consistency. However, if done properly and with compassion, by creating mission, vision, and values that are plain to understand, clear in intent, and actionable, and living by those mission vision and values, leaders, employees, and even customers and clients, can participate in the co-creation of a coherent culture that is the true foundation of a sustainable organization. Instead of finding new rules of the road from team to team or division to division within an incoherent organizational culture, focusing on developing a common understanding of and behaviors around an organization’s mission, vision, and values will result in smoother riding, fewer collisions, and a greater ability to work collectively toward common goals with common means.