Disagreeing with the Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business Review is a go-to read for business executives; I am an avid reader.  But I disagree strongly with the April 2016 cover which blasted readers with a disturbing headline “You Can’t Fix Culture: Just Focus on Your Business and the Rest Will Follow.”

Seriously?   The related article, authored by Jay Lorsch and Emily McTague (1) is someone more subtly titled “Culture is Not the Culprit.”  Yet culture, and how it can be transformed, is not defined.

The article itself does a great job illustrating a number of business challenges, and the ‘business solutions’ that were implemented, all the while proclaiming that culture is an outcome, not a cause or outcome of the business challenge itself.

Yet the business solutions that were put in place were great examples of exactly how great leaders can purposefully and intentionally change culture, and by doing so, create more lasting, transformational change for the organization that will impact its abilities to face future challenges.

Lorsch and McTague detail how Delta CEO Richard Anderson engaged Northwest workers after the acquisition by meeting their day to day needs.   They shared how EcoLab CEO Doug Baker encouraged front-line decision making and implemented a meritocratic reward system.  And how former Ford CEO Alan Mulally increased transparency among unit heads and streamlined business processes.

Assuming each of these approaches to solving a business challenge was implemented in a manner meant to last, they evidence leadership intent to purposefully and intentionally change organizational culture.   Too often, business “fixes” are one-off solutions, identifying a quick fix rather than achieving culture competency and ultimately, sustainable behavior.

My disagreement with the authors is likely due to definitions.  Culture is the conceptual foundation of an organization that guides an individual’s determination of how to act in any given situation.   Culture can best be defined in anthropological terms:  The accumulation of knowledge, experience, language, attitudes, meanings, roles and behaviors of a group of people.  To a large degree, culture is created by business processes, but only when such processes are clearly and consistently modeled by leadership throughout the organization.     

Business processes that are integrated and consistent with the values and mission of the organization create culture.   All team members should be able to rally behind the vision and mission, and see the organization’s values demonstrated daily by leaders at all levels of the organization.   The company’s critical business frameworks: from strategic planning, to risk management, to quality improvement, to project management, to talent management (spanning recruitment and on-boarding to compensation and incentives) should all be aligned in a consistent and evident manner.  This integration of business processes and frameworks is what creates culture.   And integration relies on integrity – – “walking the talk” is critical to building culture that impacts behavior at all levels of the organization. When you focus on your business, and implement consistent, logical business processes and frameworks, you ARE focusing on your culture.   This article had great content and illustrative examples, but completely missed the definition of culture, and the opportunity to show how changes in business processes ultimately and intentionally transform culture, which in turn, impacts sustainable future results .

  • Lorsch, J. W., & McTague, E. (2016, April). Culture is Not the Culprit. Harvard Business Review, 94(4), 96-99.