General Motors CEO Mary Barra is taking aim at the “C” word.
“I hate the word culture,” Barra is quoted as saying in an article by Joseph B. White in the September 30 edition of the Wall Street Journal. “Culture is really just how we all behave,” according to Barra. The comments are curious in that Barra testified before a Congressional subcommittee last June that she would
GM CEO Mary Barra outlines new strategic plan (Image copyright GM)
not rest until GM’s “deep underlying cultural problems” are resolved. The subcommittee was investigating GM’s failure to recall thousands of cars with defective ignition switches for eleven years.
It’s myopic to dismiss the word culture. Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s third definition of culture is “a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.” GM would benefit from focusing on these issues plus the broader context of the word culture. In his Tusculan Disputations, the ancient Roman orator Cicero introduced the concept of culture as cultivation of the soul as a farmer cultivates crops. Culture has come to represent beliefs and customs of societies. Cultural anthropologists study social structure and customs in populations ranging from villages to corporations.
Culture is inextricably intertwined with collaboration in that how “we all behave” in Barra’s words determines whether we’re working together towards common goals or working at cross purposes. Ironically, in a July 28, 2014 post, The Culture of Collaboration® blog took General Motors to task for overemphasizing culture change without structural change. Culture change typically delivered as an edict often highlights the desired result without providing a way to get there. This common prescription from leaders, pundits and management gurus often fails, because the shift originates with executives without detail, discussion or broad buy-in. Meantime, the outmoded organizational structure stays the same. To achieve collaborative culture and the payoff that collaboration provides, it’s necessary to change the organizational structure. Then culture change can happen.
On October 1, GM outlined its new strategic plan that focuses on technology and product advances, growth in China, establishing Cadillac as a separate business unit “headquartered” in New York City and delivering “core operating efficiencies.” Incidentally, the notion of headquarters is a relic of Industrial Age command and control. Nowhere does the plan mention structural change, which the automaker sorely needs. Changing GM’s structure requires overhauling everything from how team members share information across levels, roles and regions to how the company recognizes and rewards people as I detail in my book, The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration®.