The Culture Compass to Navigate Uncertainty
Oxygen supplies were running critically low; hospital beds were unavailable; medicines were in short supply; a colleague and his family was desperately pleading for help – lives were at stake. Within minutes an informal network of co-workers exploded into action; personal contacts were leveraged; emergency medical equipment, and infrastructure was organized – lives were saved. During the second wave of the pandemic, our colleagues responded to each other, and created an incredible system on the fly, to help each other in an unprecedented crisis, where every moment spelt the difference between life and death.
From fixed to fluid
How did we do what we did, functioning with amazing speed within the boundaries of the systems and processes of a 145-year-old global organization of 100,000 people, operating in 180 countries? The answer is simple – it is all about organization culture; the bedrock of an institution that has been through all the industrial revolutions since 1876. My nearly four-decade-long career spans three global organizations, which are all over 100 years old, highly process driven, and at times bureaucratic – flexibility is not an inherent characteristic of such enterprises. Nevertheless, I have always witnessed that each time there is a challenge, these organizations have turned from fixed to fluid, and shown how strongly resilient they are.
What is culture?
Uncertainties, chaos, disruptions, are nothing new for companies that have survived wars, pandemics, technological, economic, and geopolitical disruptions throughout their lifespan. What I figured out, was that organization culture provided an unshakeable foundation, that had enabled these companies to beat back every challenge, regardless of how intense those were.
What is culture? I believe that culture is giving people a purpose to believe in; it’s an unwritten code of behavior, of ways of doing things, and as someone said; “it’s how you behave when no one is watching you.”People long to belong, and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Companies that fixate only on profits will lose ground to organizations that create a strong identity, that meets employees’ needs for affiliation, social cohesion, purpose, and meaning.
Culture is also defined as an organizational anchor that keeps our values and principles in place. Anchors provide people with a sense of stability and security. Similar tomarine anchors, they help you overcome turbulence by staying grounded without capsizing.We found that psychological safety was something employees always craved for, and providing a sense of feeling safe, and being taken care of was embedded into our culture. Whatever environment your employees are in, if they do not feel psychologically safe, they will not be able to perform at their best. This was one of the major factors why companies are able to maintain their performance, and even improve on it despite the most challenging times.
Speed over perfection
Our organization culture placed employee health & safety at the top of the agenda during the crisis. This helped us to put speed over perfection. It wasn’t a time to gather all information and then decide. Once the most important pieces of information was in place, the machinery was set in motion, and room to make mid-course corrections built into decisions. In the post-pandemic world this lesson will prove to be invaluable. Opportunities come and go quickly during a crisis, so organizations need to be ready and willing to act fast, even if they sacrifice predictability in the process.
One of the leadership principles at Amazon is “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” — which, as explained by Jeff Bezos —is a strategy to encourage leaders to avoid wasting time trying to secure universal agreement. Better to commit to a controversial decision, and then gather data and adjust if necessary. At Google’s Project-X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, they consciously celebrate failed projects as a data point that helps them narrow the range of options, and in doing so, accelerate innovation. Similarly, at Spotify, they have developed a framework for exploring the relationship between data and uncertainty that they call DIBB (Data, Insights, Beliefs and Bets). They use it to explicitly identify success metrics for new ideas and opportunities, and judging performance. This is essential in building organizational resilience.
Something bigger than yourself
Organization culture also provides a sense of purpose in the work that we perform. It is not confined to the task, but connects the work to a larger purpose. It is the job of leadership to establish, articulate this connect, and make people understand that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Shaping a better world out of the power of mobile connectivity to deliver positive change is a purpose, that each of my team-mates across the world understood, and enjoyed being part of. This is what made all of us keep our commitments to customers. All of us felt that we were responsible for keeping the world connected when everyone was remote.
It’s often said that “where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” Indeed, employees aspire further when their energies are channeled to purpose. When centered at the heart of work, purpose helps people navigate uncertainty, inspires commitment, and even reveals untapped market potential. Future-ready organizations will clearly articulate what they stand for, why they exist, and will use purpose as the glue to connect employees, and stakeholders in ways that inform their business choices.