July 18, 2013
3 Questions That Can Resurrect Any Company Culture

Are you spending so much time in meetings discussing deadlines that you end up missing one?

We’ve all felt like Dilbert at one time or another. And there’s a reason: Many organizations periodically succumb to the deceptive lure of bureaucracy and procedure. Whether you are early stage, midsized or a large global organization, there are times when it’s difficult to avoid the mistaken perception that process is the best remedy for bringing order to chaos.

But as Dilbert regularly reminds us, too much process can stifle innovation and passion, making mediocrity the norm.

On the other hand, not all process is bad. When used to achieve consistency and efficiency, for example, process can be a very positive—and necessary—component of the workplace environment. Not enough process? Your workplace may get a little haphazard.

Here are three questions you should ask yourself today if you want to build an engaging, vibrant culture.

1. Do you know if you’re using process for the right reasons?

I met Terry Frasier a couple of years ago.  At the time, Terry had just stepped into the role as CIO of a high-growth telecom firm and his excitement was palpable.  When I ran into him recently at a networking dinner, however, he was seriously frustrated.  So what happened?

In Terry’s new company, most of the managers were worried about scaling up the organization during a challenging time.  While all their procedures slowed things down enough to create a sense of control, it also stifled passion and innovation—the true drivers of an organization’s long-term growth, strength and value.

In his previous role, Terry was encouraged to reward his team for pushing the envelope. Sure, they had rules, but it was safe to adjust, add and remove processes. He expected no less at his new job. But to his dismay he had walked into an environment where wildly successful outcomes took a backseat to process.

For better or worse, organizations primarily introduce process for any one of the following reasons: Creating consistency and leveraging economies of scale, compensating for human weakness and controlling outcomes.

Whether you’re running a toy factory, software company or a management consultancy, creating consistency and efficiency are generally the only reasons a company should employ processes. However, if process is becoming more important than achieving the right outcome, it’s time for some honest introspection about how you are using process:

  • Is hitting your metric your main goal at work? If your metric is 75 and you hit 76 are you finished?
  • Do you resent it when co-workers suggest how your processes can be improved?
  • Do you prefer maintaining the status quo?
  • Do you micro-manage?
  • Do you genuinely believe that your co-workers hinder rather than help?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be using process the wrong way.

2. Are you taking a balanced approach?

Think of it this way: A process is a point-in-time solution.  It makes sense for the goals, people and environment in play at that moment. But as soon as one variable changes, the process can become “wrong.”  A healthy, balanced culture recognizes this and permits the workplace to change and adapt. It encourages people to challenge themselves by asking, “Am I just doing what I did yesterday, or am I doing things right?” They’re often not the same thing.

In a balanced organization, process is used when productive, but abandoned when the process itself becomes more important than achieving the right outcome.  To do this, you must be able to differentiate between a healthy process and an obstructive process.

3.  Do you know how to keep process at bay?

With process minimized, how do you balance the need for predictability with the freedom to be creative? By fostering an innovative culture that doesn’t use process as a crutch. Here are some shortcuts:

  • Hire for cultural fit as well as technical ability:  If you want an innovation-driven culture, hire people who are committed to innovation.
  • Think of process as just a tool: In a balanced organization process is a tool, not the point.  Because people feel ownership of outcomes, they are unlikely to let process interfere with their drive for success and should have the freedom to adjust, add and remove processes as needed.
  • Keep everyone aligned with the company’s goals and vision.  Foster a culture of shared vision and collaboration rather than obedience, and employees will do the right thing. Cultivate the mindset that teams succeed or fail together.
  • Know when you are successful.  Define metrics that the entire organization buys into. Most employees will opt to be wildly successful than just mediocre.  

The fastest-growing companies in the United States recognize the role culture plays in shaping high performance teams. Process always plays a secondary role because management knows employees will always do what’s best. That’s a balanced, healthy culture.

Just remember: Focus on results, not on how you got there. Make getting it right the top priority and do whatever you can to set your teams up for success.  It won’t be long before you see the life come back to your organization.

Joel Basgall
Joel Basgall's dynamic career as a technology leader and software innovator has been largely dedicated to building predictable, results oriented software teams. As Co-founder, President and CEO of Geneca, Joel remains focused on growing Geneca’s ability to deliver business value through custom software and reinforcing the culture and practices that have made the organization’s progress and success possible.