Scaling up culture – how to spread it without losing it

I came across this book via a post about “Scaling Excellence” on Matthew E. May’s blog. It’s a subject close to my heart having experienced massive growth with and trying to hang on to all the good small company stuff whilst getting externally very big.

The bumf says the book (and the nobel prize for best co-author name must surely go to Huggy Rao) is built on nearly a decade of academic research and case studies into companies as they have grown. Of the 7 rules for scaling set out by Rao and Sutton, the one that leapt out at me and appears in first place was the idea that you should be aiming to “spread mindset, not just footprint“.

Trying to impose a cultural change on a large organisation is pretty hard. Most of the time, all that happens is a thin veneer of difference is spread lightly over the surface of the existing organisation: a few posters go up, everyone goes to a conference and drinks booze on the company and cheers at the new ‘vision’, the ‘about us’ puff piece on the website changes.

Without enaged actual DNA level change amongst people, there’s zero chance of that culture change sticking. Test that veneer with any kind of stress and chances are it will very quickly dissolve and you lapse back to the embedded poor behaviours and practice.

Trying to wholesale lift the externally observable behaviours, systems and processes of a great culture and skin it wholesale onto a bunch of people that don’t share the mindset just will not work. You only have to look at American car manufacturers who thought they understood Toyota’s systems based on a few visits to see how badly that went wrong.

If you want to overcome indifference and apathy in your culture, you have to ensure that what pockets of excellence you do have are exposed to the rest of the enterprise. If you can create conditions where the mindset for great culture spreads, where people take inspiration from the values and attitudes that underly the behaviour they see, then you’ll have a culture that scales.

The mindset behind that pocket needs to be supported, nurtured and ultimately encouraged to ‘infect’ it’s surroundings. Great culture is a good disease to have in an organisation. This sort of approach mirrors viral behaviour, but we’re using the exact opposite of containment to help it spread:

  1. Identify your pockets of good culture – figure out which teams are the gold standard
  2. Create and amplify transmission vectors so it can spread quickly – publicise examples of teams getting it right in as many ways as you can; all hands meetings, newsletters
  3. Move the most infected people and teams around to spread their ‘disease’ faster – bring the infected into contact with parts of the organisation that are untouched