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People are like bats Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Spelunkers report that if you place a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood upright in a bat cave shortly before dusk in a previously unobstructed space, upon flight, hundreds of bats will slam into the plywood and fall to the ground.

Fortunately, they pick themselves up, fly around the obstruction, and spend the night hunting insects. Bats ingest their weight in small insects each night and they do this with incredible accuracy while both predator and prey are flying in the dark night air.

How can this small mammal be so precise in its feeding yet so klutzy in its own "home" bat cave?

Bats navigate by two methods, echolocation, a kind of sonar, and memory. However, echolocation is extremely energy intensive, whereas mammalian memory uses very little energy. Consequently, bats memorize their routes through their caves, then navigate based on that memory. Thus, when they run into the plywood, they are flying blind.

When they pick themselves up, they memorize where the obstruction is (really fast growing stalactite?), then fly around it. This can be confirmed by moving the plywood. They continue to navigate around the assumed obstruction and fly smack into the newly positioned board.

To this extent, people behave like bats. They figure out how to complete a task, negotiate a deal, introduce a new product, get a date, find a hotel, order a wine, etc., then tend to stick with the solution, even though the world changes at a fierce pace. We no longer see what is really there.

Scientists call this routinization of perceptual scrutiny. I argue that we are flying blind in our own organizational cultures just like bats in their own bat caves.

This month, we will explore the rudiments of culture, and in a future column, consider how to use culture to help implement your vision and strategy. Aligning culture to strategy is essential. Implementing your strategy is likely to fail without proper regard for the role of organizational culture. Also, nothing effective will happen to culture unless the CEO supports the change effort. All organizations have cultures. The difference is how aware of it you are, how you perceive it, and if and how you use it to bring about your firm's mission and realize its vision.

So what is culture? Organizational culture is the pattern of shared beliefs and values that gives the institution's members meanings about their behaviors and rules for how to behave. The key words are pattern, shared beliefs, and meanings and rules. Patterns are key because isolated incidents don't make up cultures. Shared beliefs are important because individuals are emphatically not the culture (although the CEO may cast a long shadow).

Beliefs must be shared or they aren't part of the culture. When a pattern of beliefs is shared, the beliefs collectively provide meaning for employees.

My simplified advice to leaders is to assess your current culture, define the desired future culture that will enable you to successfully implement your strategy, and decide clearly how you will manage the transition from current to future.

Assessing the current culture is easy, if the investigator is systematic. Examine the physical setting. Contrast the informal campus at NIKE, which is one of the most beautiful, idyllic noncollegiate spots, with the much more formal Manhattan headquarters of a tobacco company, which is encumbered with high-tech security and its implications.

Among other things, consider who is promoted and the value statements of leaders. Does the head of marketing or operations get the nod to be CEO -- is it an insider or someone from the outside? Pay attention to informal norms like attire -- casual running gear at NIKE versus suits at other corporate headquarters.

To create your future culture, you must create and clearly communicate the vision for the future. That vision must include specific, desired behaviors about your employees -- you cannot be vague. The final step is to recognize that your future culture must fit with your strategy. Next month, I will explain how to change your company's culture and give tips on watching out for the proverbial plywood. Lance Kurke, Ph.D., is president of Kurke & Associates, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based strategic planning firm. He is president of the nonprofit CEO Club of Pittsburgh, serves on the faculty at Duquesne University, and is an adjunct at Carnegie Mellon University. Reach him at (412) 281-2930 or at kurke@msn.com.