Caution: Falling Axioms

David Baker

Hello folks. I am with my lovely wife in Turkey and Greece for the next few weeks. In the spirit of sharing interesting concepts that will cause you to think more intentionally, this month’s Food for Thought features a guest author, our CEO, David Baker. Thank you for providing this month’s shift in thinking, David. I will return next month. - Balaji

With a background in advertising, I am keenly aware of the influence that engaging and colorful words can have on the acceptance of an idea. However, I had not connected this with the business axioms that are so often embraced without challenge.

Axioms are statements or propositions regarded as being established, accepted or self-evidently true.

I wondered about the cultural consequences of not challenging these underlying beliefs when I read an example in The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It caught my attention, perhaps because I have often shared the adage:

“If you are going to bring me a problem, make sure you bring with it a solution.”

On the surface, this phrase makes good sense because behind the expression are two juxtaposed attitudes: one of a “passenger” type employee who has nonchalantly identified a problem but is not adequately engaged enough to offer a solution, and one who also perceived the challenge but is committed enough to wrestle with the issue until a solution is found for it. One is building and the other is throwing rocks. Which person would you rather work with?

With the above judgment in mind, step back and examine the axiom and the issues that might arise from this thinking. The first is based on a belief that lives in many organizations: “If you point out a problem, you have a moral obligation to fix it.” If this holds true in your organization, then speaking up when you see a problem can be a great way to ensure you'll get more work! (And remember that your best people are probably your busiest.) Second, today’s business landscape is changing so rapidly that there are new and undefined challenges out there. If the above obligation exists, pointing out a problem without a solution is tantamount to admitting, “I don’t know how to keep up with the changes, perhaps I am obsolete.” And third, what if I see a problem that has absolutely nothing to do with my department? If I say something, might I be creating adversaries of people from whom I might need help later?

In all three scenarios, the people closest to the work and, perhaps more importantly, those who see the problems best are incented to stay quiet. Then, of course, the problems go unchecked and are repeated.

In all organizations, there are beliefs and mandates that everybody knows but are not actually written.

While the notion of "bring a solution with every problem" may still be the right approach, we should explore the potential consequences of holding that belief. In this case, a danger of people thinking, "it's better to stay quiet." Left unchecked, these beliefs can grow into signposts for all to see and follow.

For example, one organization we work with had an unwritten protocol that all staff knew about, accepted as valid and even promoted. It even had a name and an action to go along with it, which basically meant, "cover your butt." It was like a fraternity. Quite without intention, a cultural signpost had been created suggesting the narrative that any type of mistake will be met with fear and retribution. It was nursed over time and easily passed from one employee to another. And even though it was not true, new employees were quickly indoctrinated to the understanding and carried on the tradition. And so it is with culture. If we do not define it, others will. Leadership has an obligation to be wary of what we believe and intentional of what we promote. (Unless of course, that's just an axiom.)

In an attempt to define cultural signposts, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans has developed what he calls Quicken Loan ISMs. These are traits that can be attributed to a person or organization as reflective of his/her/its personality – such as kids calling dad's bad joke a dad-ism. He created these ISMs to be clear about what is required to join and stay at Quicken Loans and he is dramatic in their elevation.

Another commonly shared saying is "culture eats strategy for breakfast."

Is this true? Are culture and strategy even separate? Perhaps. However, the issue is not culture eating strategy; rather, it is the absence of the integration of the two. Many organizations have not been intentional in identifying the underlying causes, good or bad, of their culture. And whether you use ISMs, share axioms or put up posters with motivating core values, stories will develop in the minds of your staff. Those stories will develop, not based on the axiom or the poster, but on the sustained actions of the leadership. The opportunity is to ensure culture is not separate but rather part of your strategy, and that leadership believe in and curate the culture so much so that the posters, axioms and ISMs demonstrate the organizational narrative as authentic. When that happens, culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast, it sets the table for it!

On Friday, May 1, we will hold a complimentary telecon to discuss this issue further.

This one-hour telecon will be held from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. (CDT) on May 1, and will discuss tools to address this issue in your company. We encourage you to sign up and attend. Please visit our event registration page for more details.

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.


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