Why Culture Always Wins (An Excerpt from The Year Without Pants)

[This is an excerpt from The Year Without Pants, An Amazon.com best book of the year]

Chapter 4: Why Culture Always Wins

YWP-sidebarA great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results. Much of what bad managers do is assume their job is simply to find new things to jam and new places to jam them into, without ever believing they need to understand how the system—the system of people known as culture—works. Much like the frustrated moron who slaps the side of a TV when it stops working, taking action without understanding the system rarely helps.

A favorite example of this tragic management habit is how in 1999 the famous design firm IDEO was featured on ABC’s popular Nightline TV show. They demonstrated an idea development technique they used called a “deep dive” to redesign a shopping cart in just five days. Soon hundreds of companies were doing their own half-baked versions of deep dives, and, surprise, the results were disappointing. Somehow, despite how dedicated some were to following all the steps and all the rules, an element was missing, and they couldn’t match the results they’d seen on the show. The missing ingredient was, of course, the primary one: the people involved. Watchers of Nightline worked at places with employees who were not as talented in design as IDEO’s. But beyond their talent, IDEO employees shared values and attitudes that were not explicitly captured in the deep dive method despite how essential those things were for the method to work. In anthropology terms this superficial mimicry is called a cargo cult, a reference to the misguided worship of abandoned airplane landing strips among tribes hoping for the goods airplanes had delivered to return.

Every year new trends in work become popular in spite of their futility for most organizations that try them. These trends are often touted as revolutions and frequently are identified with a high-profile company of the day. Concepts like casual Fridays, brainstorming sessions, Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, matrixed organizations, or even 20 percent time (Google’s policy of supporting pet projects) are management ideas that became popular in huge waves, heralded as silver bullets for workplaces. The promise of a trend is grand, but the result never is. Rarely do the consultants championing, and profiting from, these ideas disclose how superficial the results will be unless they’re placed in a culture healthy enough to support them. No technique, no matter how good, can turn stupid coworkers into smart ones. And no method can magically make employees trust each other or their boss if they have good reason not to.

The best approach, perhaps the only approach, is an honest examination of culture. But culture is harder to understand than a meeting technique or a creativity method. And culture is scary because unlike techniques, which are all about logic, culture is based on emotion. Few people have the skills to evaluate, much less change, a culture, even if they have the courage to try. It’s far safer to simply wait for the next trend to come along and rally behind it, hoping the excitement for the new method distracts everyone from noticing how little impact the previous method had.

In my story so far at WordPress.com, every employee I met was smart, funny, and helpful. They’d invested heavily in tools and systems but put the onus on employees, even new ones like me, to decide how, when, and where to do their work. These attributes of culture didn’t arrive by some technique sprinkled around the company years after it started. How did it happen, then?

Read the rest of the chapter 4 in the free PDF or read the entire first chapter.

Praise for The Year Without Pants, an Amazon.com best book of 2013, includes:

The Year Without Pants is one the most original and important books about what work is really like, and what it takes to do it well, that has ever been written.”
Robert Sutton, professor, Stanford University, and author, New York Times bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss

“The underlying concept—an ‘expert’ putting himself on the line as an employee— is just fantastic. And then the book gets better from there! I wish I had the balls to do this.”
Guy Kawaski, author, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, and former chief evangelist, Apple

“If you want to think differently about entrepreneurship, management, or life in general, read this book.”
Tim Ferriss, author, New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek

Read more than 140 amazon reviews and consider buying the book.

6 Responses to “Why Culture Always Wins (An Excerpt from The Year Without Pants)”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Not only do folks mistakenly transplant techniques, they may try to transplant cultures too. Like when the big three auto makers realized Japanese cars were not just better designed but better built too and then tried to transplant “Japanese (Deeming) management.”

    And of course, during the War on Terror, a part of the “Ugly American” phenomenon is trying to blindly transplant US cultural democracy without respecting the locals… In the case of Iraq, a plight too ignoble to be termed tragic, US citizens (aka Yankees) failed to respect their own State Department.

    1. Scott

      Yes, you’re right. The notion of transplanting culture is even more ridiculous than transplanting methods. I do think culture change is possible but it’s slow, painful and requires a much deeper commitment than most people are willing to give.

      The “inflict democracy on other countries” phenomenon is high hypocrisy – a great point worthy of its own writings. It’s related to the faith American’s have in revolution, a faith misplaced since we are one of the few nations in history to have a successful one.

  2. Norx

    Hello Scott,
    I’ve just finished reading your book. It came into my vision while looking for clues on how to successfully manage (no, actually lead) a qa department at a factory – my next assignment from June.
    It was definitely worth reading, an envigorating, motivating (and all these positive ‘ing’ words) piece of art, and entertaining at the same time. Almost even made me register a wp account!
    Thank you for that, a real keeper for my future journey!



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