[This post was originally published on Medium.]
Every organization operates out of an idea of itself. (We call this idea several things: our “business model,” our “value proposition,” our “core mission.”)
Of course, we would like to think this idea is perfectly adapted to reality, that it is the best, most sensible, way of extracting value from the world.
But sometimes our idea falls out of its “match” with the world. And now that the world changes so often and so fast, this happens a lot. “Idea” and “world” are no longer dance partners.
Part of the work of management is detecting these moments of disconnect and restoring the connection between our idea and the world.
If, on the other hand, we neglect (or refuse) to restore the connection, something bad happens. We are taken captive by our culture.
This makes for a grand sounding generality. So I was interested this morning to find an example from the Spotify boardroom.
Thanks to the magnificent curatorial work by Jason Hirschhorn at REDEF, I read this essay from Track Record. It describes a confrontation at Spotify between Blake Morgan and Spotify executives.
There are lots of issues here. I will focus only on the cultural one.
Here is Blake Morgan’s account of his meeting at Spotify.
I was a vocal participant in the meeting, and when it was over I found myself surrounded by several Spotify executives.
One said, “Blake, I just don’t think you understand, our users love our product because it’s such an amazing one.”
Another added, “You have to look past just numbers, our product is so great it’s actually turning the industry around.”
This went on for a while, until I finally said to one of the executives, “You keep using that word, ‘product.’ I’m not trying to be difficult, I’m really asking you: what do you think your product is?”
The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly and said, “What do you mean? Our product is Spotify.”
There it was. It was a shocking admission to me, in earshot of everyone, and one he obviously didn’t think was an admission at all.
“No no…sorry,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Your product isn’t ‘Spotify.’” He continued to stare at me. I said, “Sir, your product is music.” The emboldened musicians standing around us started laughing. The exec smiled and backed away, “Well okay, if you’re going to be like that.”
I especially like the line:
“The executive was surprised. He stared at me blankly.”
That’s when you know someone is the captive of their culture. They cannot “compute” the question that challenges it. They are “deep in.”
Cultural captivity is dangerous. It may be the single most reliable way to expose the organization to disruption.
What’s the best way to escape cultural captivity? Make sure that your ideas are not assumptions. Make them vivid and present. Make them visible. Work on your ideas as if they were the first and most precious of your “intellectual properties.”
Culture is your friend or it’s your captivity.