The Way You Think About Business Needs A Revolution

Stroll into the headquarters of most large organizations these days and you’ll find all sorts of interesting things – ping pong tables, free drinks, laundry service, paid sabbaticals, free snacks, dogs in the office, nap rooms, coffee shops, rock climbing walls, beer on tap, free gym memberships, and if you’re really lucky, an enormous silver swirly slide between floor levels in the cafeteria (yes, seriously).

Many times, we see all these phenomenal perks from the outside and think, “Wow, what a great culture!  It must be amazing to work in a place like that.”  And to an extent, this sentiment is true: workplaces with crazy awesome perks are often reasonably good places to work.  But it’s not the perks that make them great.  It’s the great that makes the perks.

We have been thinking about culture entirely backwards.  We’ve confused causes with effects and means with ends.  We see amazingly fun things like billiard tables, organic food, and arcade games and we find ourselves (quite naturally) pulled into the deceptive illusion of association; we think “fun stuff” equals culture because it’s so, well, fun, and more importantly, because we can see it.  But just like the culture of a nation or city, a company’s culture is actually made of a huge melting pot of mostly invisible things  – things like shared values, accepted practices, and common language.  For most of us, it’s just easier to talk about what we can see instead of those other, more hidden things.

But here’s the problem with that – if you’d like your business to truly leverage the power of its culture, focusing on the visible perks will never be enough.

Instead, we need to start thinking about business in an entirely new way.

I used the word “revolution” quite deliberately in the title of this article, not because I want to conjure up bloody images of violent uprising, but because the literal meaning of revolution means to “turn around” – as in the earth does a complete ‘revolution’ around the sun once a year.

When it comes to how we think about business, we need to quite literally flip our thinking; we need to turn it around.

For a long time, we’ve been thinking about business in a mostly coercive way.  We believe we have to convince people to come work for us, so we devise competitive salary and benefit packages.  Once they’re in the door we think we have to compel them to stay, so we create incentive plans and maybe even “golden handcuffs” for the super-talented people.  We then perceive a need to persuade potential customers into buying our product or service, so we create foolproof marketing plans and clever advertising.

When we think of our businesses in this way, almost every action we take is from a defensive position, from a perspective of scarcity.  Our mindset is one of constantly trying to persuade people to do things (we assume) they really don’t want to do.

This approach isn’t effective in the emerging economy, however, because it completely erodes our culture.  A scarcity mindset doesn’t create an environment that builds shared values, accepted practices, and common language around the things people want to be a part of – instead, it does the opposite, repelling people from your brand, subtly and slowly rotting your business from the inside out.

So what would happen if we thought about business from a perspective of abundance instead?

I suspect we would stop trying to convince the right people to work with us, and instead focus that energy into the product or service we’re building.  When we do business this way, we attract the passionate talent we need who join out of love for what we’re doing.

I suspect we would stop focusing on incentives and start building creative ways to help our employees leverage their unique strengths more frequently at work.  When we do business this way, we naturally boost engagement and retention, and people stay because their deepest needs are being met.

I suspect we would stop obsessing over marketing messages and instead find new, interesting ways to appreciate and value our customers.  When we do business this way, we foster intense loyalty, turning clients into passionate brand ambassadors who do our marketing for us!

In my book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe, I show how the successful future of business is all about flipping our thinking.  Essentially, there are “invisible tribes” of people forming all over the planet who care deeply about doing something they are passionate about – we know this, because even if we’re interested in collecting the most obscure, esoteric object imaginable, we can find a website devoted to it!  Social technologies are connecting us in ways we couldn’t even imagine a decade ago, accelerating and amplifying the growth of tribes all around us.

If you’d like to truly leverage the power of culture in your organization, here’s the question I’d ask you to ponder:  What if you were able to find these invisible tribes and give them a great place to work on what they are most passionate about?  

What if your organization became a place – a “container” of sorts – that provided just enough structure and guidance for people to gather and work on something deeply meaningful to them?  What if it was a place that utilized each person’s energizing strengths in deliberate ways?  What if it was a place that actually helped people become the best version of themselves?

This is why culture is so terribly difficult to understand, and why things like swirly slides and rock climbing walls could never be culture.  Real, performance-enhancing culture is something that blooms from the organizations and leaders who can create a true revolution in their thinking, taking almost everything they thought they knew about business… and turning it around.