The right culture for us?

Culture is a hot topic for many companies. Start ups talk about establishing a great culture. Candidates are looking for the right cultural fit in a prospective company and vice versa. Successful companies attribute culture as the secret to their success. Failing companies talk about changing their culture as part of a turn around plan. Then there are the clichés that companies have “a world class culture” or they have “an agile culture”. But what does it all really mean? What is culture?

One thing is for sure, culture is one of the most powerful forces in business. A company culture sets the tone and direction for the organization. The way the culture goes so do the goods and services. How the goods and services go, so does the market.

In many ways a company culture is a living thing. It fights for its very survival. A company that’s struggling for its existence or is seeking a new product-market fit can be seen as having a startup culture or startup mindset. A culture that is well established and deeply entrenched is fighting to live by leveraging managers who are afraid to try new things. Employees like those at yahoo are fighting against change in leadership and changes in policy to maintain a established culture while leadership is trying to shift a culture to be more open and communicative.

Many companies like Apple, Disney, Instagram and Twitter have a culture that is for the most part in harmony with their markets and enjoy the success that comes from a mutually beneficial relationship.

So where does culture start and where does it end? In my experience culture begins at the top. The example, words used and priorities set by executive leadership is where culture is nourished but it is the rank and file, the individual contributors who are the ones that are growing the culture.

The national culture is influenced by Hollywood and the images of culture that they sell. Yet it is the moviegoers who translate what they see into our national conscious and collective culture. In much the same way businesses are using marking to influence their customers to create and foster a consumer culture.

When a competitor is able to sway away customers from an incumbent it is more that they are swaying customers cultural perspective away from their rival. The products that delight them are more in line with the cultural expectation than by the common definition of “product-market-fit”.

Successful startups are actually recognizing a cultural shift and apply the right culture-product-fit to draw in customers. When the culture-product-fit is right, the market shift can be incredibly fast.

For example consider how fast Instagram was adopted. In just 90 days they went from zero to over one million users and then sold to Facebook in just 551 days. The share-alike culture and personal nature of pictures simply resonated with the culture.

Some of the most powerful features of twitter, such as the @name, hash tags and re-tweeting came not from product mangers imaginations but from watching how their community was using the app. The community grew the features but the company had a culture that was in line with the community culture to help make it happen.

So for corporate and business leaders the most powerful act is one where you act in accordance with the culture and in the direction you want your organization to grow. Align your behavior with the right consumer-cultural-fit and your business will find its natural home. It is your responsibility to find a home of growth or not.