Why Copying Culture Doesn’t Work

Benchmarking is stupid. The only reason I recommend benchmarking, analyzing another company, is to learn what not to do. But most organizations don’t think this way. They analyze and copy what competitors do without a worry about whether their practices will work for them or not; including culture.

You can’t benchmark culture, from Strategy-Business:

But benchmarking culture isn’t feasible. A benchmarking exercise is one of analyzing and copying the things another company does. (Companies can also benchmark their own current performance against past performance.) That won’t work for cultural elements, because every company’s cultural situation is as unique as a fingerprint. It incorporates emotionally resonant, deeply embedded perspectives and habits that have built up through years of challenges and experience; these factors can’t be easily separated from one another. Moreover, these elements have to fit the company’s strategy and core capabilities, or the company won’t be able to continue delivering value. The behaviors and emotions that should be emphasized in one company may be precisely those that would hold another company back.

Learn from others but copying won’t work

Culture is an interlocked system of people, processes and purpose. The two big ones are purpose and people, which determine:

  • How you conduct yourself;
  • What you stand for;
  • What you celebrate and punish.

There are many well-known company’s who have very distinctive cultures (Zappos, Netflix, Google, Disney, etc.). You can learn from them, but copying is not going to work. There are a set of components that will enable any type of company to develop their culture; but culture is about your identity. You shouldn’t aim to be like Google, but you can learn from them.

For example, a few years ago I helped a friend whose a Chef define and establish his culture. I sat down with him, asked him a bunch of questions and helped him determine what that looked like. One company that he pointed out he admired was Starbucks, because they’re a big brand that delivers the same experience across their locations across the world; that’s something he aspired to be.

So, I setup a meeting between a Manager friend I have at a Starbucks, asked him a bunch of questions, took notes of some ideas that were applicable to what we wanted to do and imported them to the restaurant. These ideas were about employee and customer experience, and specific actions they took to live the culture on a day-to-day basis.

We didn’t copy Starbucks culture code; rather we learned what their culture code is, how they communicate it, and how they live it on a day-to-day basis.

Bottom line: Your company’s ideal behavioral strengths are unique, and shouldn’t be borrowed or copied; not even from a high-performance enterprise.