As Hilton Barbour has observed, the culture you have is defined by the behaviors you tolerate, despite what your values may or may not say. While a poorly performing culture may play out as a toxic brand culture, it doesn’t always manifest that way. A lack of performance can stem from allowing the inherent culture to over-extend; to adapt characteristics that take the culture to a place where those very dynamics work against it.
While much is made of the attitudes and behaviors of poorly performing cultures, I have seen little evidence to suggest that such a culture is automatically ‘bad’. On occasions, they can be happy places to work. They are just not effective places to work. So, for the purposes of this piece, a poor performing brand culture is one where the people in the organization act in ways that do not enable the brand to compete to its full potential. And as we shall discuss, there can be a range of reasons for that.
Robert E. Quinn and Kim S. Cameron’s model of the four types of culture provides a convenient framework for explaining this idea. (There’s a great depiction of this model illustrated under 3. Community in this post):
1. Clan cultures have a deep sense of family that fosters togetherness. People inside well-functioning examples of this model feel cared for and that they are very much valued as members of a team. Such cultures judge their performance by what they accomplish as a group. But when clan cultures over-extend, they shut themselves off from the customer. They become so focused on what the team thinks and what the team feels comfortable with that they become self-absorbed, judging themselves on metrics and standards that focus on what they do and what they value rather than what they continue to achieve for their customers. They work more slowly (because they work at the pace they feel is necessary). They are reluctant to acknowledge their competition. They worry that change will see them valuing their people (i.e. themselves) less.
2. Adhocracy cultures are fast moving and dynamic. They have a powerful first-to-market mentality that sees them encourage innovation and disruption. They are highly customer focused and continue to look for ways to improve their customers’ experiences. Such cultures judge their performance by what they bring to market. But when these cultures over-extend, they can iterate at a level where they tire themselves out and they focus so much on change that they forget to celebrate and draw value from the assets and equity they already have. The key to success for every brand is striking the right balance between revolution and recognition. Adhocracy cultures, with their natural sense of impatience, can undermine their own strengths by working at their pace, at the expense of what customers feel comfortable acting on. They can get to market too soon. They can struggle to achieve scale and take-up (because they’ve moved onto the next thing). Resilience can be a real issue for them.
3. Hierarchical cultures are all about the tried and true. They have a deep sense of tradition and of the ‘proper’ way to do things. Their structures are deeply entrenched and they believe in discipline and control. These brand cultures have a firmly established way of doing things, including how they go to market, and that orthodoxy can be a powerful force for efficiency in brands that are spread across many regions and that depend on documented structures and clear lines of control to keep things orderly. We are all painfully aware, however, of what happens when hierarchical cultures over-extend. Their sense of order and wish for things to remain within a rigid pecking order stifle innovation and diversity, drive passive-aggressive behaviors at all levels and isolate anyone who they classify as a trouble-maker or a boat-rocker.
4. Market cultures are focused on results. They are all about what gets done, who gets beaten and the success that comes with that. In highly competitive sectors where rivalry is fierce, a culture that isn’t market focused stands very little chance of survival. Market cultures are often sales driven, highly energized and ambitious. They appeal to people who like the cut and thrust of the markets and they generate cultures where market leadership is the focus of many discussions. When these cultures over-extend however, they can become overly aggressive and winner-takes-all. They can generate a culture where there is little compassion or sympathy and where those who fail to commit to winning at any cost can quickly be made to feel like laggards. They can be very macho places to work that exhibit truly appalling levels of behavior that is then justified, even sanctioned, by the performances that have been achieved.
It’s tempting to look at Robert E. Quinn and Kim S. Cameron’s model and surmise that the sweet spot for every culture must lie at the intersection of these four culture types. Not true of course – because the dynamics of different sectors play a critical role in deciding what characteristics a brand culture must have, and because, within that, each culture must be differentiated from its competitors in order to stand apart. If you don’t have a sense of distinction internally, your brand will really struggle to manifest that externally.
That said, the culture you have is not always the culture you need. The challenge lies in the extent to which you are willing to challenge ‘the way we do things round here’ to achieve your business outcomes. The temptation for too many in my view is to pronounce that the culture needs to revolutionize, and that people need to adjust to what the business now sees as the culture it requires. That is never going to happen – because the culture you have is one you have arrived at and reinforced over time, and any attempts to overthrow and replace that have been proven time and again to be futile.
But you can build on the culture you have. You can introduce elements to your culture – through values, rewards, leadership training, storytelling and a host of other initiatives – that curb over-extensions, add or change one or two prevailing dynamics and kick-start the brand culture into a more competitive state.
The key to getting this right is being able to identify, at a leadership level first, the culture that will most powerfully drive the brand forward. Then marrying that, at a team level, with the elements of the current culture that will continue to drive people forward and to give them the incentives within their own walls to take the brand where it needs to go. And finally, personalizing that for those who work for the brand in such a way that it feels relevant and empowering to them in their current work and for the longer term.
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