Cultural workflows: Is that your mother riding that elephant?

Founder's MentalityIn my recent blog post on surgical strikes, we talked briefly about “cultural workflows” and how they can slow a company down. During our eight weeks of workshops on how incumbent companies can maintain their Founder’s Mentality®, this topic came up often. So I wanted to devote a full post to exploring different kinds of cultural workflows and offer some quick ways to address them.

Cultural workflows are disruptive activities that arise from otherwise sound cultural attributes. While a given attribute may have started out as a pure positive, over time it encourages negative behaviors. What makes these behaviors so hard to manage is that they hide behind the values companies hold most sacred. As one workshop participant said, “It’s like the elephant in the room is being ridden by your mother—no matter how stinky the elephant, who wants to be seen as attacking your mother!”

Cultural workflows are best understood through concrete examples, so we’ve picked out 10 of them. For each, the bold subheading is the original cultural attribute, followed by a description of the counterproductive behavior. As you read through them, my guess is you’ll have a hard time arguing against any of the cultural attributes. But that’s the point—the problem is the unintended consequences. So read on: At least one of these might be a big issue in your company.

1. Know the details of your business. Few would dispute that every leader should know their business inside and out and be on top of the numbers. The cultural workflow is when this produces a proliferation of briefing books designed to keep executives up to speed. Because it is a cultural “sin” to be caught out in a meeting not knowing a fact, every leader must be fully briefed for every meeting. Staff people waste hours preparing a leader for all potential questions, and most of these hours are wasted on tab after tab of back-up material that never sees the light of day.

Quick fix: Make it clear that every leader must be a phone call away from any answer. That focuses a leader on getting to know his or her people, not graph 406 of Tab d, page 31.

2. Pursue a fact-based strategy. A robust strategy must be based on a thorough analysis of the market, starting with your core customers and chief competitors. But organizations often respond by developing templates to gather information—templates that leaders delegate down to their staff. These templates are typically generic and only about 20% relevant to the strategic issues faced in any individual market. And they begin to overwhelm the process to such a degree that neither the group nor local leadership is focused on the few core insights that really matter. This is a big reason we believe most strategic planning exercises are a waste of time.

Quick fix: Get rid of the templates. Demand that every local leader focus on a fact-based discussion of his or her specific If leaders at the center have issues they want discussed, they need to send out guidelines. It’s essential that senior leaders at the group level talk directly to the senior leaders at local to decide which issues are the real priorities.

3. Start with the customer. Any strategic, organizational or operational discussion should start with the customer. But this can lead to pages and pages of research and “customer back-up” that leave no one the wiser when it comes to actual customer insight. Often companies task a consumer insights group with gathering specific research on a given topic, and when the inevitable fat report comes back, everybody ticks off the customer box. The problem is, leaders spend little time actually talking about specific customers or how initiatives will serve their needs.

Quick fix: Demand that each recommendation start with a description of the exact target customer and how, specifically, this initiative will affect his or her preference for your products and services. If you are talking about costs, ask a critical question: Is the consumer willing to pay for these new costs?

4. Build a robust business plan. Every important decision should be backed up by a rigorous business plan. But slavish devotion to planning can often lead to a common myth: more spreadsheets equate with greater business certainty. Yes, planning is crucial. But for any sufficiently bold strategy there are hundreds of unknowns. And if “robustness” is the sole criteria, there is always a reason to perform more analysis and redo numbers, leading to endless deliberation over the latest 10-year forecast.

Quick fix: Balance planning with “speed to market.” Sometimes it is better to roll out a test and adapt to feedback. The test/adapt cycle should be a key part of business planning. It creates a bias toward action.

5. Respect the individual. All people decisions must be rigorously grounded in what is right for each individual—and this starts with robust evaluation systems. Too often, however, these systems amount to box ticking on complex forms, rather than face-to-face coaching and feedback. Managers complete reviews more to feed the HR system and “review time” finds leaders and supervisors alone in their offices, hunched over computers filling out templates. Respect for the individual often results in bland messages—not honest appraisals—and a lot of people drift into mediocrity because no one is telling it to them straight.

Quick fix: Have HR give mentors some help with the paperwork but repurpose the time saved to force mentors to really coach mentees. This demands two things: First, mentors have to tell it like it is—giving mentees tough messages when needed so they can recover (rather than drift slowly to a terrible exit). Second, they must inspire their people to join the insurgency, to reconnect with the front line and customer. Incumbents presume that job security and predictability are enough to inspire extraordinary performance. They aren’t.

6. Zero-base your budgets. Some of the greatest companies on earth are devoted to zero-based budgeting. The idea is that each year should start with a blank page. You don’t assume last year’s costs; you start from zero and think about how you can do more with less. You allocate resources based on this year’s pressing issues, not old priorities that may no longer be relevant. Even at the great companies, however, this can turn into another template-filling exercise. Vast corporate staffs are dedicated to help fill in the templates, and before long the process bogs down in corporate versus business unit debates around how well the templates have been filled out.

Quick fix: Zero-base the zero-basing staff.

7. “Pre-wire” participants. As senior leaders move down their busy agenda, it is important they know that each issue raised has had full input. That means every executive who has knowledge relevant to that issue has had a chance to engage and weigh in. This pre-wiring prevents surprises and minimizes conflict in the meeting itself. The goal is to have everything worked out in advance. The problem is, this attempt to smooth decision making actually creates the kind of massive time burn that my Bain colleagues Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi described so well in their Harvard Business Review article last May. Do the math on any executive committee meeting—if there are eight issues on the day’s agenda, imagine the number of pre-wires demanded to get to the point of discussing it at the executive committee. At a minimum there are 10 meetings in advance of each 10-person meeting. This raises an interesting question: If everyone who matters has been pre-wired and their issues reflected and considered, why discuss the issue at all?

Quick fix: Embrace conflict. If a meeting of peers is not about debate on core issues, where executives bring differing opinions to the table and defend them vigorously, what exactly is the reason for meeting?

8. Socialize issues to gain broad alignment. A related cultural workflow is the notion of “socialization.” A good leader recognizes that to ensure good results from any decision, it is important to socialize the issue widely, both to gather the most possible input and win the broadest consensus. That way, when the final decision is made, no one is surprised and everyone gets on board. But this often leads to a series of unintended consequences. First, it implies that everyone needs to be on board with every corporate decision. Rather than a cultural norm that says, “Presume trust; we can’t involve you in everything,” the norm is, “Don’t worry, you’ll always get your say.” But why is it important that I get a say on everything? Sure, if the decision is related directly to me, I need to get involved. But why do I get veto power on all decisions? This kind of socialization distracts entire organizations. Rather than doing their job and trusting others to do the same, everyone starts looking around at what’s going on elsewhere in the corporation and waiting to have their say.

Quick fix: Eliminate the word socialization. If you really need to get people on board, focus on working with the front line to translate a decision into the right set of routines and behaviors that will ensure its success at the customer level.

9. Be a team player. Winning in business today takes a village. Be a great team player, encourage your peers and provide positive energy for all. The unintended consequence of this is that peers don’t challenge each other and no one is rewarded for raising tough questions, especially when it comes to probing the pet project of another. Innovation meetings become Woodstock—a big love-in, where each initiative is discussed and encouraged. No one challenges another’s “brilliant” work and every idea proceeds to the next stage. But this kind of mutual backslapping is never right for the customer. The organization needs conflict to stop the dozen things that won’t work so it can devote massive resources to the few things that will do spectacularly well.

Quick fix: Remind everyone that being a good team player requires challenging each other’s ideas and risking conflict within the team. Yes, a good team player ensures that no member on his or her team fails. But sitting silent while the company pursues a mediocre idea only encourages potential failure.

10. Drive down decision making. The best organizations make decisions close to the customer. This speeds up decision making and assures that decisions fall to those with the most local knowledge. The problem arises when the matrix starts to do battle with itself, miring key decisions in endless debates. The local team fights to customize solutions for the local consumer, but those in the center fight for global standards to take advantage of scale. Since they are told not to escalate the debate, issues circulate around and around and nothing gets done.

Quick fix: Encourage healthy debate around local versus global issues but set up a system to resolve these conflicts quickly. Sometimes escalation is a good thing—it puts top leaders back on the hook to understand the tension between local customization and global standardization and it makes them aware of the kinds of things that are slowing down decision making.

These cultural workflows are a very big deal and hard to tackle. But left unchecked they’ll become a pile of wasteful activities that can suck the life out of your people. You need to lead the elephant out of the room (last time for this horrible metaphor, I promise). As for your mother—help her down, dust her off and remind everybody she was never the problem.

This entry was posted in The Journey North, The paths to Great Repeatable Models by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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