Corporate Culture

Corporate anthropologist Andi Simon is the founder and president of Simon Associates Management Consultants and award-winning author of On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to take your Business to New Heights. Recently, we had a chance to talk with Andi about corporate culture from an anthropological perspective and how this knowledge can be used to help facilitate organizational change.

What Exactly is a Corporate Anthropologist, and how can This Type of Expert Help Companies?

During a recent interview, I was asked about anthropology in a complex corporate setting. The question was, “Don’t anthropologists typically study less known, small-scale societies? What are you doing studying organizations or corporations in complex societies?” In actuality, companies of all sizes are small-scale communities with cultural values, beliefs, and ways of doing things that are “sacred” and supported by their mythology and rituals. We just don’t typically think of them that way.

For almost a hundred years, anthropologists have been applying the methods, theories, and tools of cultural anthropology to complex societies. Examples include the cell phone manufacturer Erickson, who studied how teens used their cell phones (although they missed iPhone concepts); ReD, who studied Absolut Vodka consumption and why it was all about the stories people shared as opposed to the vodka itself; or Intel, who sent anthropologists into people’s businesses to see how they used technology.

In small or large communities, people cannot easily tell you what they are doing or why. They typically tell you what they think you want to hear. Through storytelling sessions, culture probes, and observational research, we better understand what they are “really” doing. We can also dig deeper into what it means to the individual, their social group, and the society of which they are a part. If we step out and observe, we can see all kinds of things that help the company and us better understand what they are “really doing” and how they could sustain their growth in new ways.

Briefly, describe the concepts behind the Blue Ocean Strategy. What benefits does this approach have for corporate leaders?

The theory, method, and tools of Blue Ocean Strategy were developed by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne and published in their book Blue Ocean Strategy in 2005 (and then in a new edition in 2015). The reasons we embraced the strategic approach were three-fold:

  1. It is a very anthropological approach to seeing new markets, unmet needs, and ways to expand into new spaces that are not presently well-served.
  2. The entire methodology is built on visualization, which we know from both the neurosciences and the social sciences is of critical importance for the individuals and groups of people to understand their perceived reality and adapt to changes in their perceptual maps.
  3. It is grounded on the understanding that the current strategy was no longer of value in a fast changing business and cultural environment. Those who thrived were going to have to reconstruct market boundaries, make the competition irrelevant, create and capture demand, go after nonusers with unmet needs, and strategically build an organization around differentiation and low cost. As we applied these to client situations, we saw our clients rethink their strategies in ways that opened new markets and helped them return to growth and profitability – often in unexpected market spaces.

If a corporate leader were to say to you, “I prepare my employees for change by telling them ‘our business and company are always changing, so you’d better be ready for it and accept it,'” how would you respond?  This is a rather abstract approach and something that is inherently unsettling to people. Few people have any rehearsal time for a new role in a company or the practice necessary to learn how to do things in new ways. They hear words, but are rarely sure exactly what those words mean for them. Without the skill development, they make up what they think is meant by that statement and wing it. All the support for the changes needs to be in place as well as the overall communication, education, and expectation clarity required for people to understand what will now be expected.

If a corporate leader wants to change the culture of an organization, what is the absolute worst action that he or she could take?

Giving the task to HR. We are often called in when a new president has come into a company and decided the culture has to change. Rather than assuming responsibility for the transformation, he or she gives it to an HR person who typically knows little about the current culture, knows even less about how to change a culture, and really does not manage most of the organization that is supposed to change. Most importantly, the HR person doesn’t know what needs to be changed. Are the employees too controlling and hierarchical? Are they too innovative or ad-hoc? Perhaps they just want to make money and fail to collaborate?

Finish this sentence: “Before introducing significant change to a company or group, it is pivotal that a leader must…”

See the problem with a fresh perspective, feel the challenges faced by employees and customers (in experiential ways), and look at the data while carefully recognizing that it does not exist unless it is analyzed in the context of what is taking place. Additionally, we do not believe in turning a big ship with an oar. Leaders must be able to mobilize staff to better see, feel, and think about the changes required; or else their staff will watch the leaders try to change and not know where they are going or why they should follow. Why? Because change is literally pain.

The brain hates to change, and cultures are resistant to change as well. Change is very experiential. Unless people see it with their own eyes, they distrust what leaders are claiming and dispute the need to change. Even when they intellectually know that something is in need of change, people decide with their emotions, then justify them with logic or data.  People live most efficiently in the habits of everyday life. Change is disruptive, and few know how to change comfortably.

If a person or group in a company is resistant or even hostile to a specific change, how should a corporate leader address the situation?

There are typically four hurdles we face when changing a company: cognitive ones where people don’t know “why” they should change; motivational ones where they don’t really want to change; political hurdles where people see power grabs challenging their positions and fight change; and resource hurdles where they don’t want to give up anything to change. Until that leader has a better grip on what the person or group believes are the roadblocks to change, it will be hard to address them. Often, we have a leader take the most outspoken resistors and turn them into leaders of the change process. We like to get those who have the most to lose to begin to see how their prior successes set them up for success in the future.

We don’t recommend bringing in a consultant to drive the changes. We do suggest that consultants are excellent for facilitating and enabling the process. But staff will rebel and undermine the change efforts if they are not engaged in the process. Therefore, use the consultants wisely and build engagement, educate often, and manage the expectations of the people who are being asked to change.

Since your site helps companies rethink their customers, organizations, and business strategy, could you tell us how often companies should be taking a fresh look at these areas?

There is growing awareness that we are at the end of a period of stability when your strategy could help you build a competitive advantage. Now, success comes from the great accelerators that are driving businesses to continuously assess their models from all perspectives: from customers, services, pricing, marketing, and people. It might seem difficult to move that quickly and keep the strategy under continuous evaluation. But it is necessary when things emerge, surge, and purge in a very short timeframe.

Not long ago, I heard the CEO of a major IT company talk about how their strategic planning had shrunk from a five-year horizon to a two-year horizon.  He wasn’t even sure he could stay on strategy for two years.  The real challenge for all companies is to have a strategy and a culture willing to have good metrics and data analysis to see what is working, how it is growing or shrinking, and how to adjust often and quickly to those shifts. With the right analytics, abundant data, and the ease to create solutions to test quickly, companies should once again see themselves as innovative entrepreneurs as opposed to those that rely on the “way we have always done it.”

In the future, what will be the most important leadership qualities that will be needed to succeed in a rapidly-changing business environment?

  • Agility. Mental and team agility.

Back to blog