It’s not the people but the routines that make up a company’s work culture
Routines to an organization are like habits to an individual. They are highly sticky and time-saving
Who is the chief of US space agency Nasa, or, for that matter, Cern (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), two of the organizations responsible for some of the most significant contributions to the world, right from enriched baby formula food to the Large Hadron Collider? You might even struggle to recollect the name of the CEO of 3M, one of the world’s most innovative companies, or General Electric, another innovation powerhouse. Our ever-shortening attention span is so crowded by narratives of the late Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and, lately, Elon Musk, that we often assume that these people are single-handedly driving innovations in their respective organizations. We tend to overlook the battery of talent, and, more importantly, the “ways things are done” in such organizations. Innovation is just one of the outcomes of a culture.
Much has been written and said about the virtue of having the right talent for innovation, especially in companies like Google. However, it’s also true that Google experiences one of the shortest employee tenures in the tech industry—an average employee stays at the firm for just about a year! The case at Amazon is no different. Needless to say, these organizations pay pretty well, offer sufficiently challenging jobs to talent, have some amazing perks and cool offices, yet the doors keep revolving. How then do these organizations stay innovative in the face of external and internal churn? The answer, surprisingly, is not talent, but routines.
Routines to an organization are like habits to an individual. These are mostly subconscious, largely time-saving, and highly sticky. It is often said that it is easier to learn a new habit than to break an existing one. In a similar vein, organizations have the inertia of their habits or routines. Such routines could be traced back to the founders, or the earliest employees. Over time, these routines become robust. Culture, then, is not so much a manifestation of people as much as that of routines.
The notion of routine, and not talent, as the building block of culture offers some very practical insights to managers and leaders. First, it questions the enormous effort put into hiring the best and brightest talent, just to see your star performer getting bored and walking out rather soon. Remember, even the likes of Google and Amazon struggle to hold on to their talent. Instead of putting that kind of effort into talent-building, what if the leader spends time in setting out solid routines and processes? 3M gives its employees 15% time off their work hours to pursue projects which are not directly related to their goals and objectives.
The second implication of identifying the power of routines lies in making the organizational culture robust in the wake of enormous dynamism and uncertainty in the external environment. A complex and uncertain environment often leads organizations to focus on a few well-defined rules, rather than a lot of dos and don’ts on how to manage employee behaviour. With massive uncertainties, talent is bound to be in flux, and rightly so, for no company can offer to attract and retain the best talent. Companies are bound to make wrong hires, miss out on great talent, and may not have time to reskill. In such a scenario, robust routines can substitute for not-so-great talent. With a robust routine (read, the way things are done here), a company can expel a wrong hire, can possibly attract an interesting candidate, and nudge someone who is fast getting outdated. Think of it as an autonomous, self-correcting system. Much like the Open Source community, or the volunteers at Wikipedia, which remains accurate and relevant with a handful of permanent employees.
Lastly, every leader would want to leave a legacy, and, in many cases, this is the organization they have painstakingly built. Often, the talent the leader brings exits before or along with the leader, and what remains is the culture. With a focus on setting up few but robust routines, the leader can build an organization that outlasts her tenure. So, the urge is to look beyond talent as the whole and sole of culture, and to the power of routines.
Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.
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