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Why Entrepreneurs Need to Worry about Corporate Culture

By Kerry Patterson, Chief Development Officer and Cofounder, VitalSmarts

When Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard developed their first product more than sixty years ago, they were able to turn their innovation into an extraordinarily successful company because they had two visions, not one. Unlike most innovators and entrepreneurs who are single-minded monomaniacs in search of the next new idea, they felt equally strong about the nature of the company where their ideas would be nurtured through the product cycle. In a word, they worried about their corporate “culture.” This duel vision made all the difference.

In fact, the concept of an organization having a thing called a “culture” actually began with their company. In the mid seventies Bill Ouchi and Alan Wilkins (the original corporate culture gurus) were in search of organizations that could go toe-to-toe with their clan-like Japanese competitors. To find a healthy prototype, they turned their attention to HP—the quintessential “Theory Z” company—one where leaders and employees alike would create a highly innovative company, free from bureaucratic control. Employees would be directed by a shared vision, not policy manuals. Their values would be aligned. Their assumptions about how the company would and should work would be similar. In short, they would be consistently informed and directed by their culture. This intellectual alignment would make them lean, agile, and genuine contender in a market place characterized by turbulence and novelty.

And it wasn’t just any old culture these two wily engineers had in mind. They knew that innovation can only thrive in a company where people can honestly express their ideas, free from fear of ridicule or the ever-present, “but the bosses won’t like it.” Professionals need to be able to bring their ideas out into the open every single day. No one person can possibly hold everything that needs to be known within the walls of a single cranium. Consequently, professionals, technicians, and hourly employees alike need to bring differing disciplines together in way that fosters genuine synergy.

Most importantly, the two visionaries cared deeply about the individual—putting people at the very center of their company. Their view of a healthy culture wasn’t merely a catch phrase; it was a passion. This belief in people didn’t end up as a flavor-of-the-month or something that VPs touted twice a year during the semi-annual corporate conference. Their belief in the power of individual contribution to a greater whole found its way into the very warp and woof of their company.


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