Horowitz on culture

Ben Horowitz has posted a video of his talk on culture change on the A16Z blog. He gets straight to the heart of the matter: Everyone says culture is important, but in terms of advice very few have “more than the platitude” to offer people running companies about what they should do to shape or change their culture.

This is doubly frustrating as a strategist. Strategy is hard, hard work – mis-used, half-used or abused as a discipline, the downtrodden strategist can find themselves at the end of their quest to discover, define and action-plan the hell out of a plan, only to be met with a wry smile from a senior stakeholder and the invocation of Peter Drucker’s observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

I’ve always held the definition of culture to be “how we get things done around here”. Ben’s working definition is similar but a little more useful in describing what a particular culture is: the collective behaviour of an organisation. Or, as he puts it “What do people do when you aren’t there to give them direction?”

He has some easy questions to test what your culture really is (rather than what the business plan says it is)…

  • Does your company get back to people quickly when they call?
  • Are decisions made using data or intuition more often?
  • Do people turn up on time to things?
  • Are you careful when you are spending company money?
  • Do you always tell the truth to each other, to clients and suppliers?

It’s a useful way of thinking about culture. In getting down to what works in changing culture, Horowitz takes inspiration from the “only successful slave revolution in human history” – the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century). Most cultures of slavery relied on a culture of fear

The four rules are:

  1. Keep what works.
  2. Create shocking rules.
  3. Incorporate people from other cultures at high levels in the organisation.
  4. Make decisions that demonstrate priorities.

These mostly make sense to me – a mix of pragmatism and taking action to affect changes in how people behave. It’s about what you do and what you demonstrate to be important and effective behaviours that make the difference.

I recommend watching the whole presentation. Apart from being useful and fascinating, it’s a masterclass in engaging storytelling and presenting.

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