Culture Still Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Culture Still Eats Strategy for Breakfast

One of the experts at Cognizant Snapshot Breakfast at Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) was Euan Davis from the Center for Future of Work. Here, he answers some of the questions that were raised from the event’s online audience.

I went to Sweden to co-host Cognizant’s Snapshot event (read about it here in this post). We were there to discuss the issue of culture and why it matters in an era of hyper-technology and accelerated change. Joining me on the stage to discuss all things culture were Jan Amethier, an executive from SEB, Lars Ederström, Head of Business Innovation, Sandvik Materials Technology, and Frida Pemer, Assistant Professor from the SSE. The online questions we didn’t get around to discussing provide some useful insight. Enjoy.

Question 1: 
I was curious to hear from all the speakers that different leadership skills are needed than more traditional ones? Collaboration vs. conquering? Including vs. dividing? Gut feeling vs. strategy? Is the trend of ’human/authentic qualities’ now more important?

Leadership has to change. Every one of the speakers on the Snapshot stage explained that the “vision thing” was, and is, critical. From my perspective, most executives are well aware of the need to respond in leadership styles as the forces of disruption play out around them. The real challenge behind a cultural shift is going to be motivating workers to embrace visions of change, managing its execution and then fusing the learning into the organization. And that needs new leadership qualities which are, yes, more human.

Traditionally perceived strong leadership qualities (“control,” “power,” “authority,” “all-knowing”) need replacing with a new mindset that encourages and nurtures co-creation, collaboration, adaptability and innovation among the workforce. The great success story of the digital age, Amazon, provides a great example. It has codified a set of leadership principles across its organization (“invent and simplify, learn and be curious, hire and develop the best,” etc.) Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos authored them, and they are used to motivate the company’s employees. Sweden’s very own Spotify reframes leadership around new structures for work and organizes teams into squads, chapters, and guilds. This has raised the agility of the workforce because they can rapidly swarm around a task, activity or engagement. These leadership methods frame corporate values and behaviors with all employees encouraged to share, not own their work. From what I hear, Spotify has an extremely positive culture where everyone rolls up their sleeves.

Question 2. 
Big changes often drive fear or excitement. How do you deal with the mental wellbeing side of culture to secure the success from people?
This is a critical point and deals with the intercompany chatter across an organization that can be toxic. We heard from Frida about “mid-careerists,” i.e., those now working that are 35 to 45 years old, that learned the old rules for career advancement. Then, just as they are about to reap the rewards, the rules of the game are changed as technology such as AI blindsides them!

My thinking is companies need a strategy to prime the future workforce. New skills and capabilities are needed to face the rapid business change, shifting labor dynamics and the rise of machines. New ways are needed to manage the employee dynamics among new entrants and those very same mid-careerists. Younger generations of workers exhibit attitudes and mindsets that are difficult for us older workers (I am one of those older workers) to countenance. Meanwhile, older workers see a younger, hipper workforce challenging the notions of now to work (greater transparency as well as their deep-rooted social media experiences that encourage collaboration and teamwork at every turn). For some older workers, it’s bemusing, while for others, it can create resentment (not me BTW).

The upshot is that people management processes need rethinking—and I think HR could be a powerful new player especially when it comes to career planning. However, new managerial skills will be required across the board. You will need process automation specialists who assess the optimal mix of tasks between software and people, and the judgment calls better left to humans. New roles will emerge focused on automation support, automation metrics, and managing process outcomes. A leader will have to be more human, but they will increasingly have to directly work using cognitive systems, algorithms, and robots rather than just relying on gut instinct.

Question 3. 
How would you enable employees to understand and grasp the new way of working, culture and the need to collaborate?

Glad you asked! I have written up a cultural framework to nurture people, determine the talents needed and the right structures in which leaders can set people to work. This framework prescribes leadership behaviors;; it guides the various activities and work streams that will build flatter structures to engage the energy at the edge of their organization (like SEB singular we heard from); it reinvigorates the power and decision dynamics that happen at the center (Sandvik); it also directs the critical upskilling that the existing workforce needs (Frida’s work) and it features a technology backbone which augments people with insight and, orchestrates new digital workflows. It provides a blueprint for the modern organization in the 21st century. Here are the five steps in detail:

  1. Set the stage with leadership: Most executives understand the challenges of disruption, but they should motivate their workforce to embrace visions of change, manage its execution and roll out learning initiatives across the organization. It starts at the top.
  2. Use the workspace to shape work behaviors: Workplaces should be designed to encourage creative expression. Offices should be designed to showcase new product developments and workforce innovation. Yes, the workplace matters.
  3. Rewire power and decision making: Businesses need to reset the dynamics of power and decision making by opening up their organizational structures. The talent you need is often found at the edge of the business, in a start-up or co-working space.
  4. Build new people-to-machine workflows: AI systems will increasingly alter employee jobs, so businesses need to retrain managers around new technologies to ensure the workforce has the skills required for new roles. How would you react to an algorithm telling you how to work?
  5. Go for the gold on employee experience: Employee experience spurs employee loyalty and productivity. Businesses should use data and digital tools to improve the quality of their employee engagement programs. Get it right, and you’ve won them for ever (well, for at least three years).

Question 4
How can leaders do more to motivate, empower and give a reward to forward-thinking people with great innovative ideas?

This is about power—and how organizations are wired for power. I have written about how rigid approaches to organizational management typified as the 1980s value chain mania must give away to something much more fluid and connected. Command and control structures, long decision cycles and silo-based mentalities simply won’t work in the modern age typified by the explosion of start-ups—and this issue of start-ups came up repeatedly by our panelists as a wave of energy that needed blending into the business.

I think the real challenge here is the people you need are more at home in a younger, fresher environment than in the belly of an aging corporate beast! Self-directed and well connected, you will find these people at meet-ups, start-ups or in a shared workspace across Stockholm. The best course of action—and one that all our panellists agree with—is learning how to partner with this extended talent pool, bringing them into the orbit of a team to enhance their innovation capabilities. This is a bunch of passionate and creative self-starters that can help channel innovation from outside the traditional organization, free from the crushing institutional inertia (present company excluded) that leaders often grapple. I have a report in the works on this…

How do you view the balance between innovation and "getting the job done"?

I view it as a balance that should major on “Don’t ignore the day job!” Getting the balance right means taking on the pareto principle—so focus 20% on what could work (if you stretched things) or be sustainable for your company. You could begin by thinking what an extended work team that blended skills, capabilities, and innovative thinking, inside, across and outside the corporate structure could achieve if you set the context properly (like through a corporate accelerator – see below). I would recommend to a leader to assemble a “band of brothers.” It means getting your investigative powers working and find those people and bring them together. Use the right tools to identify and encourage them—who is active on LinkedIn or Yammer or other social channels and connect with them.

Companies usually have "old" models to support innovation that is not motivating. Is there a setup or a model to support ideas, how can leaders reward the innovation?

Well, I would recommend watching Lars’ presentation at the Snapshot! A solid first step is to build an internal company accelerator around a specific problem or challenge, allowing internal stakeholders and their teams to coalesce around it. View it as a center of excellence to promote collaboration and knowledge exchange across the organization and think about renewing its focus every six months. Give it a mandate and funds to experiment (perhaps with virtual reality, gamification or AI). Yes, you need to give it money and give it support from the top. This came through loud and clear from the discussions on stage. It was interesting to see the top down, directive approach (SEB) supported by the executive, and we also saw a more organic approach from Sandvig, that seemed to build a “fear of missing out,” i.e FOMO, and you’re missing out if you are not participating. Both approaches have their merits and both work. I guess you have to take a calculation based on your own culture (and you can take my test 10 signs of a healthy culture to see how your culture compares.

Euan Davis

Euan Davis

Euan has guided many Fortune 500 firms into the dynamics surrounding business, technology and sourcing with his thought-provoking research and advisory skills. At Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, Euan examines how work is changing in response to the emergency of new technologies, new business practices and new workers.

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