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Culture is mostly hidden, and it never forgets.

Part of what makes it so hard to “operationalize culture” (that is to predictably incorporate culture as part of all business decisions) is that most parts of culture are hidden. It’s like skiing, biking, or driving a car – after you have done it for awhile you do not think about how to turn, or how to brake. In fact you are doing most actions as part of these activities unconsciously. That is until you have an exception — a child suddenly jumping in the street or a moose crossing the trail. At that moment all your senses focus on the exception and your training kicks in. The same is true for culture — things happen mostly unconsciously until there is an exception. That is when culture becomes visible.

The other difficulty in predictably using cultural levers to achieve strategic success is that culture never forgets — it is cumulative. So you may want to become a lean organization and run into deployment/implementation issues that are totally different from other organizations that seem to share similar values with you only because they have a different cultural legacy than yours. The same could happen with the adoption of a new technology in different markets that seem to share similar needs and values — they may have very different cultural legacies.

Another issue related to the fact that cultures never forget is that your organization may be riddled with bad habits — with people doing certain things a certain way because it has always been done this way. Most people within the groups that have developed bad habits will not question those habits — for them to be questioned they need to be made visible to people who do not belong to those groups.

What do you think? Will we ever be able to operationalize culture, the way marketing and other disciplines were operationalized?

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