To Optimize Organizational Culture, Use Both Sides of the Brain

To Optimize Organizational Culture, Use Both Sides of the Brain

01.09.12Wes Siegal

Too often, management thinkers invoke the mysterious “black box” of organizational culture to explain performance. When a merger between two companies, one with tight supply chain capabilities and one with a great sales organization, fails to realize the expected profit, we chalk it up to cultural differences.  Or when one electronics manufacturer wins with market share and great products, while another with very similar resources capabilities loses, we quickly conclude that the leading company has a superior culture.

Obviously, culture is important.  But we rarely talk about the components of winning cultures;  instead we tend to talk about every culture as if it is unique, a product of a company’s history, people, and values.  There are, however, patterns to winning cultures, and those of us who lead organizations – or their efforts to improve – would be well served to better understand them.  The popular left-brain /right-brain concept is useful in explaining when and how culture improves performance.

Let’s start with the left brain, or the “rational” mind, and consider how it affects culture.  Left brain attributes include linear thinking and precise, unambiguous categorization.  When these attributes are reinforced more widely across an organization, they show up as hierarchical, regimented patterns of behavior.  At their very worst, these are organizations that operate like Heller’s Army or Kafka’s judicial system, rigidly adhering to absurd, Byzantine rules. But more mature left-brain cultures have one very significant advantage: they get things done. These are companies where if someone says something is going to happen, it does – reliably, and on time.  

Sounds great, right?  Well, too much of an execution focus has its risks, too.  Execution cultures create legions of good citizens who fulfill the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. These are the organizations that will install a new customer relationship management system, redefine sales representatives’ roles, and train employees in the related new processes, all under budget and on time. But even when sales increase, some essential element still seems to be missing: the intended shifts in relationships with customers never materialize, and competitors are still first in line at the big accounts. Execution cultures drive people to sub-optimize, checking the boxes on things that have been assigned to them, without paying attention to the bigger picture behind their assignments.  

OK, let’s look at the right side of the brain, the home of creativity and intuition, and see how it affects culture.  Right brain cultures are spontaneous, exciting, and brimming with ideas.  Several internet start-ups and creative organizations like marketing and advertising firms fit this profile. But where every idea is a good idea, follow through is typically weak.  These cultures quickly develop norms that make it very uncomfortable to establish accountability, eliminate ideas, or prioritize work.  Organizations with too much of a right brain orientation struggle to cohere around the few good ideas that will make a difference in the marketplace.  In short: great ideas, lousy execution.

The key is not to balance the left and right brain tendencies, but to maximize them together.  Winning cultures execute quickly and reliably, but they don’t routinize work, and they avoid rigidity.  They consistently generate ideas and question assumptions, but they test, discard, and adapt ideas, so they end up with only the best ones.  We can call this an “adaptive execution culture.”  Adaptive execution cultures cultivate people who join forces together to constantly improve their performance, and push one another into new realms of performance. Think of a time you and a group of people successfully navigated a challenging transition.  There was a sense of urgency, so action had to be taken.  At the same time the keys to success were unknown, so assumptions had to be tested and you had to discover together what worked.  Adaptive execution cultures reinforce these behaviors, generating speed, focus, and innovation.

So the next time you hear a company’s performance – good or bad – being explained by “culture,” take a deeper look.  Rather than a mysterious force, chances are good that it is the presence or absence of an adaptive execution culture that is making the difference.  

What are some of the things that you do – as a manager, leader, or member – that challenge people to think and behave with in ways that are consistent with an adaptive execution culture?

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