If your company was… “Bobby”

If your company was… “Bobby”

3 steps to change “the organisational culture as an individual” by Lorenzo Agnes

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, Peter Ducker, the legendary management professor used to say years ago. And of course, he didn’t mean that strategy is something insignificant. But even the best strategy our genius manager-mind could come up with has absolutely no chance of succeeding unless its execution is delegated to people with the right culture. 

However, what does a right culture actually mean? This was the question that the organisational culturalist Lorenzo Agnes asked over 80 HR and communication experts who managed to overcome  the Friday traffic and the torrential June rain in order to come and  hear the story of his work on transforming multiple American companies in over a decade.

“Imagine that a new potential client comes to your office for the first time” – Lorenzo says to the experts and continues,  “You welcome him, introduce yourself while walking him around the office, and on the way, you don’t miss bragging about the awards in the glass case, proudly exhibited in the lobby. After that, you tell him about your products in detail. Then he leaves. And if in the next month he tries to tell somebody about the meeting in your office, there is a real chance that he will remember neither your name nor the details about your product or awards. But he will certainly remember one thing clearly – his feeling about your meeting, what the “atmosphere” was like, what was “in the air”, how he  felt and “what taste it left in his mouth”. These are all metaphors that a person uses to explain the strong impact which the invisible layers of your organisational culture have  on him.”

It is clear to most of us that organisational culture is something invisible and difficult to understand on a rational level. Still, at the same time, it is something real and immediately perceptible to everyone who happens to come across our company. Besides, it is an extreme driving force for anyone working in it. The essential question for us as managers is – how to understand and control that culture?

For Lorenzo the answer is simple – first, you should have the right metaphors.

Born in London and raised in an Italian family, he is a person who has interacted with numerous cultures – he spent the first half of his life in South Africa where he met his wife, and for almost 3 decades he has lived in the USA while working all over the world. After years of searching for an idea that can help him explain culture to the people working as security officers as well as he does  to the executive directors of companies he consults, he comes to an unexpected insight:

Every organisation’s culture can be viewed as a “person” which  Lorenzo’s children decided to call “Bobby”.

“I realised that meeting an organisation is like meeting a person. So I started asking managers and teams I was working with – if their organisation was a person, what would it be like?”. The answers to this question were immediate and surprising – the managers who till this moment hadn’t succeeded in comprehending the abstract and (for them) far-fetched ideas about culture, at once started to describe a very clear picture. This insight led Lorenzo to the first practical step he gave to the management experts.

Step 1: Set yourself the task of studying and defining your “Bobby”

In order for us to change the organisational culture, we should first understand it. Here, Lorenzo’s model for culture as a person is beneficial because it simplifies the manager’s task. First, we should try to identify what our “culture person” (our “Bobby”) is like at the moment. This is what Lorenzo set about to do when restructuring a big IT company in Denver – the first few months of the process of cultural change he spent in conversations with people from all the different levels of the organisation who had to answer the same question “If your company was a person, what would they be like?”.

For Lorenzo, every organisation, just like every person, has two layers – internal (the values layer) and external (the behaviour layer). It is crucial that who our “Bobby” is conversation includes both – what we truly believe in, what values drive us, what our behaviour is, and what it is that we can and cannot do. This is the only way to paint a realistic picture of our “culture person”.

Yet, once it is painted, there is a real chance that we won’t like it. 

“The managers at the company in Denver didn’t want to admit at first how unattractive our “Bobby” really was in the eyes of everyone”, shared Lorenzo. “He turned out to be mediocre in many ways, insincere and careless. Nobody liked him, even the founders of the company. He was downright unhealthy.”

As painful as this realisation might be, however, we must accept it. This is the only way we would be able to move on to the second step of the model.

Step 2: “Bobby” must be healthy.

The metaphor of “culture is a person” has one more extraordinary strength to it – it brings the focus back to the person. A person can be productive and efficient only when they are healthy. “It is absolutely the same with culture”, claims Lorenzo. “We must stop dividing organisational cultures into “efficient” and “inefficient” but into “healthy” and “unhealthy”. In Denver we realised that we should do everything in our power to heal our “Bobby” – that was the only way he would have a chance to become truly successful.”

The healing of our “culture person” involves a series of actions. The first and most important is the active engagement of the senior managers. For Lorenzo, one must not only talk about “Bobby as we imagine him”, but also become him. “When you look at someone from the board of directors, you see “Bobby” (i.e., each one of the managers is a personification of culture). The question is which one of the two versions of “Bobbies” this is – the sick or the healthy one? If it is the sick one, as it turns out in many cases, then the only way that the organisation can change is for the people to make the decision to change. And then go through with it. As painful as this was for them, the managers from Denver had to turn into the new “Bobby” in their values and behaviour.”

Only when this happens, can we move to the final step for cultural change:

Step 3: “Bobby” must be everywhere

After the picture is clear and the senior management has decided to carry it through, starting from themselves, the third step is to focus on communication. Or as Lorenzo says, “to put the new “Bobby” everywhere – from the interior and the screens in the lobby to the inner processes and all the way down to the operational meetings. We should do it persistently and constantly until everyone starts to think and talk about “Bobby” – only that way they will have a chance to gradually become “Bobby” – i.e,. to become a personification of culture.”

Manoeuvring through the rain puddles after the meeting with Lorenzo, I was thinking that to those of us who live and breathe organisational culture theory, this model might sound too simplistic. Isn’t organisational culture something extremely complicated, incomprehensible, and accessible only to a limited number of selected thinkers? I realised that Lorenzo is right about one thing – culture indeed somewhat resembles a person. Because a person is also complex, multi-layered and incomprehensible when we think abstractly about him. But that changes as soon as we find out that he is called “Bobby” and we sit and chat together over a drink. The more I think about it, the more I see no reason why the same can’t be said about culture.