Whether Drucker really coined the phrase “Culture eats strategy” or not, the bros running Uber seem hell-bent to prove it out. It’s been reported that the leading lights of Silicon Valley keep those little light bulbs over their heads burning bright with micro-doses of LSD and magic mushrooms. The boys at Uber seem to have been macro-dosing some reagent that kills empathy and renders one tone deaf to the arc of business karma.
In a business soap opera with many sad moments, one of the saddest is that it didn’t have to be this way. Not to argue posthumously with Mr. Drucker, but culture does not have to be some rampant beast, red of tooth and claw, with the limp carcass of our business dreams dangling from its bloody jaws. That is not to suggest culture is some purring lap cat, content to wait in some warm sunbeam until we deign to turn our attention to it. Ignore culture at your own risk. It likes attention and failure to offer enough attention is a quick path to unexpected (and usually undesirable) side effects.
In this tech driven moment we all share, intangibles like culture often get short shrift, pushed to the background by all the shiny gadgets, giddy finances, and breathless velocity of change. The Technorati are more comfortable with syntax and servers, first round financing and valuations, with changing everything (and nothing). Others can argue whether that kind of focus has to come first, that real innovation doesn’t have the luxury of attention to intangibles in its earliest stages. What can’t be argued is that to realize the full potential of an innovation, some consideration is necessary of how it changes the world it encounters and how those encounters, at volume, will impact how any bright idea gets turned into action.
Somewhere along the journey from idea to action, we begin to form up organizations to help nurture the idea, turn it into something that thrives in the marketplace, and then guides its evolution over time. Whether it’s a one to one connection, or hiring employee number three, or bolting on a marketing, finance, or HR practice, culture is the software we use to build organizations. Its syntax and grammar are the unspoken rules of interaction, the implicit glossary of acceptable terms, and the gamut of effective gestures that we learn from and apply to every interaction.
Just to make it a wee bit more interesting, this organizational programming language called culture is compiled and run, not by cleanly architected digital machines, but rather by the poorly understood and always evolving fuzzy logic system that is your average human being. No reliable command line interface and only rarely identical outputs from identical inputs. So yeah, business history, really any organizational history, is replete with evidence that culture eats about everything it encounters be it as clearly intentioned as strategy or vaguely defined as a teen ager’s ambition.
Back to the Uber dudes. Before we go crucifying them for their obvious boorish behaviors, predatory relationships with, well, everybody not them, and generally questionable business ethics, we should pause for a moment. Even a little bit of self-reflection begins to illuminate our own culpability in the culture beast that is gnoshing on Uber right now.
The most obvious way we support that culture is by hailing a ride. There is a population that’s apparently just fine with the Uber business culture as long as the driver arrives when needed and the price is right. Uber’s rider numbers have grown steadily, whatever the culture news might be. I guess, nobody ever went broke over-estimating our ability to look away from all kinds of brutality in order to save a few cents on toothpaste, or a few minutes on the highway.
It doesn’t end there though. Our obsessive focus on surfaces and the star, winner take all culture it promotes through the pages of People magazine, all the reality television, and even the professional wrestling style drama that has come to characterize national politics, it all feeds the very things we profess to abhor, in Uber and in the wider world.
I once worked with a CIO who, when told a particular piece of software or situation was “really complex” would invariably reply, “O.k. Find me someone who really understands it, because you obviously don’t.” A bit red of tooth and claw in its own right, but also not entirely off the mark. I am reminded of that as I say that culture is fiendishly complex with as many variables as there are individuals multiplied by all the interactions between them. I have to admit, I don’t come close to understanding it.
That does not mean that I am content to sit back and let the beast do its worst, to let every interaction escalate to the level of culture wars. I am invested in change and in moving us all forward. Doing that can take all kinds of different forms, but every one of them, to realize their full potential, will require a diligent, explicit focus on culture and where cultures meet and shift and change.
In technology circles, as one begins to learn new programing languages, we use the concept of a “Hello World!” program. It’s a simple little program that uses the basic syntax and tools of a particular language to display the words “Hello World!” It’s not the highest value piece of software, but it’s a first concrete step to being able to use the construct of a particular programming language to do something useful, meaningful. It’s time we write “Hello World” for the programming language of our organizations – Culture.