Culture Provides the Beat for Your Organisation


The Difference a Drummer Makes

I’ve written before about how brilliant Kristin Hersh is – and how she has executed some fascinating business model innovation.

She’s currently active in three basic music-making activities.  She does solo work under her own name, and she runs two bands as well – Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave.  I was listening to the first 50 Foot Wave record over the weekend, and it got me thinking about organisations.  Here’s why –

The interesting thing about her two bands is this – their lineups are basically the same, but they have two different drummers.  The Muses consist of Kristin singing and playing guitar, Bernard Georges on bass, and David Narcizo drumming.  50 Foot Wave is Kristin singing and playing guitar, Bernard Georges on bass, and Rob Ahlers drumming.  Hersh writes all the songs for both.


The lineups are nearly identical, yet they sound quite different.  How can this be?

It’s the drummers.

They’re both excellent drummers, but their styles are quite different.  Narcizo is very precise – even when he’s playing fast (and hard), he is always controlling the beat.  The band never seems out of control.  They also change tempo and rhythms constantly, leading to unusual song structures.

Here they are playing Bea:

With Ahlers playing, 50 Foot Wave is a much more straight-ahead rock band.  There are still some quirks, but they mostly just pound forward, and you get the sense that they could careen out of control at any moment.  To me, it’s a totally different sound.  Here they are playing Clara Bow:

The point here is that you can have nearly the same elements in a band, but still have very different sounds. The context of those elements matters, a lot.

 What is like Drummers in Organisations?

In organisations, it is the culture that provides the beat.  This means that the same idea will perform differently in different organisations, even if nearly everything around it appears to be the same.

Dave Snowden wrote an excellent post on culture today.  He says:

Culture arises from actions in the world, ways of doing things which may never be articulated, and which may not be capable of articulation.  In effect culture is always complex, never complicated.  So it follows that cultural change is an evolutionary process from the present, not an idealised future state design.

So the most singularly stupid meaningless thing you can ever do is to define what culture you want.  At best it’s a set of platitudes, at worst its a set of pious platitudes that trigger negative and hostile accusations of hypocrisy from your employees and customers alike.  Culture is an emergent property of interactions over time so the first and most important thing is to map your culture.

Snowden has a good system for mapping cultures, and great recommendations for trying to shift them.  When we think about the culture that supports innovation, his three recommendations will also work.  The are:

  1. Focus on actions. Snowden argues that actions tell us a lot more about your organisation’s culture than rhetoric.  This is true.  If we are trying to build innovation, this means that being able to experiment is much more important than including innovation in your list of corporate values.  The best way to build an innovation culture is to innovate, not to talk about it.  Do this by building the capability to test ideas quickly and cheaply, and in such a way that you learn from the outcomes.
  2. Manage through constraints. Constraints are the things that determine current actions.  They also drive creativity.
  3. Manage interactions and connections. In complex systems, emergent properties arise through networks of interactions.  Building an understanding of your networks is crucial to improving innovation outcomes.  Network weaving is a more effective management tool than organisational restructuring.

A common mistake that I see from organisations is taking an idea from somewhere else and trying to just bolt it on to an incompatible culture.  Google’s 20% is a great idea, but it will only work if your people are empowered to make their own decisions, their regular work is rewarding, and you have the resources and desire to implement the ideas that they develop.

If your culture doesn’t include these qualities, then 20% will end up looking more like it does in this post by Shanley:

20% of the time, or all of the time, people can work on whatever they want to

What your culture might actually be saying is… We have enough venture funding to pay people to work on non-core parts of the business. We are not under that much pressure to make money. The normal work of the business is not sufficiently rewarding so we bribe employees with pet projects. We’re not entirely sure what our business objectives and vision are, so we are trying to discover it by letting employee passions take root.

The difference between that picture of 20% time and Google’s is culture.  Just like the difference between Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave is drummers.

Culture provides the beat for your organisation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “Culture Provides the Beat for Your Organisation

  1. Tim,
    Terrific. I was well reminded only last week that it is the lead and the beat that make the music, everything else is the rhythm and support and if you are not advising or focusing on leadership and culture for innovation, then there is no point for the rest until this is right.

  2. This is quite possibly my favorite post I’ve read! In the past several months, my team has started to develop a pipeline of good, innovative products that form the kind of product portfolio I was hoping to see. Some will be hits, and others will miss, but the spirit is right and the customer response is as well. Similarly, we are starting to be more creative and innovative in customer experience, which is the idea of getting all the little things right when you interact with us, so you want to do it more. The personnel in the company is largely the same. The difference is the drumbeat – the new GM’s are emphasizing speed, simplicity, confidence and are testing this by looking for small, quick wins. Working so far!

    • Thanks Andy! That’s great to hear about the idea pipeline. Very interesting that you’ve managed the change with the same personnel. Definitely looking forward to discussing this in more detail in May!

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