Ignore Culture At Your Own Peril

When I was 3 – 4 years old my love for Disney started. I had seen the movies but everything changed the moment I set foot in Disneyland. I still get excited even though I’ve been to Disneyland a bunch of times. That excitement made me very curious about how they execute at such a huge scale.

You see, as I got older I became obsessed with the idea that a group of humans created a wonderland that immersed other people, young and old, getting them to suspend disbelief.

My curiosity about Disney drove me to ask myself many questions: How do you achieve that? Why does it happen? And how do you make this happen at such a scale, consistently?

As I got older I figured there was something deeper that made everything stick behind the execution of the story and management of it all; that I learned is culture. Which is a set of shared beliefs and attitudes that everyone lives by on a day-to-day basis. Every organization has a culture, known or not. But only a handful have a culture that was deliberately shaped from the start; like Disney.

Culture matters

 To me culture is about creating an environment that makes it possible for people to be and become the best version of themselves; everyday. The innovation driven organizations create conditions for this to happen repeatedly. You’re innovation driven if you’re like Disney. And they’ve kept it that way for over 50 years; they understand culture matters. The ones that don’t care about culture are at a disadvantage, because they’ll be unable to change.

Think about it, if a company is not innovation driven from the start, it will show when it becomes established; and most organizations are innovation driven. The biggest threat to innovation is internal politics, and an organizational culture which doesn’t accept failure, and doesn’t accept ideas from outside and cannot change.

An organization that had its start with a bold purpose driven by innovation will likely have a culture motivated to do so; and then have to fight to keep challenging themselves.

For example, I love this 40-year old memo from Nike’s first head of marketing, which is a testament to their culture.

nike culture

Nike is still going strong. Culture matters!

Organizations that don’t value culture treat people as interchangeable parts, removing and replacing them with others as they see fit. And those that don’t think about culture from the beginning are certainly doomed.

I’ve witnessed startups go under because a founder optimized for speed (move fast break things) while another optimized for accuracy (no mistakes) and they just weren’t on the same page. The same happens with established organizations, those that are doomed make other mistakes: playing not to lose than to win.

Playing to win means protecting the future, you go find the revolution before it finds you. This means maintaining efficiency while also exploring the future.

With that said, your culture is what you celebrate and penalize. If you celebrate curiosity, creativity and experimentation; chances are you will have innovation. A culture of innovation is the opposite of one that worships the status quo.

Innovation has many enemies, and the number one enemy of established organizations is their internal culture. You’ll eventually fail if you don’t sit down, think about, write and show your organization’s shared beliefs and behaviors when you’re just starting out.