Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Detroit Doesn't Have a "Culture" (sort of)

While I was a research fellow at the Center for the Edge working on this paper, two of the most interesting documents I came across were from Netflix and Valve Software. They were in essence, company culture manifestos. What’s important about them is that these documents are very comprehensive and they are written down. These qualifications – that the documents are comprehensive and written down – is important to note. A culture doesn’t matter unless you can describe it specifically, because if you can't it implies that the culture is weak, coincidental and/or inconsistent across the organization. Coincidental cultures, if you will, don't stand the test of time and are more like fads.  What's the point if a culture isn't distinct and enduring?

(Here’s a teaser for later in this post – by this definition, Detroit likely doesn’t have a culture because it's not consistent across the city)

I’ve had the privilege of presenting to a few government and corporate executives in the past few weeks. Culture has come up a few times and it’s not surprising – organizations everywhere are trying to build culture because leaders are realizing that people management (the umbrella category for things like culture and talent) is a sustainable competitive advantage.

But I think a lot of organizations have the wrong approach when it comes to organizational culture. Instead of building and evolving what they have, and create something unique to their organizational challenges and strengths, they try to copy someone else’s culture. The tech sector is often the target of this mimicry, whether it’s copying the practice of rotational programs or having snacks on every floor.

The 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings (which is especially timely because the Olympic winter games are currently occurring in Sochi), offers a parable for why it's important not to mimic someone else's culture.

Recall the scene where the bobsled team is in the Olympic village preparing for their big race. Derice makes reference (per usual) to being like the Swiss sled team. And after an exchange Sanka replies exclaiming that the team won’t be able to perform at its best unless they stay true to what they are: Jamaican.

This lesson also applies to organizations. Organizations can’t do their best unless they stay true to who they are. It takes too much effort to try to be something your not, and that’s effort that can’t be accomplishing goals. If you don't act like yourself it's also hard to be confident - you never know if someone is going to pull the curtain away and reveal you are a fraud.

So when I see companies trying to “build culture” and achieve results by copying the practices of what others are doing, I think they are missing the point. What matters about culture building is doing things that represent who you are, and implementing programs that affirm that identity, not transplanting a practice from another company and forming an identity around that. Copying someone else's culture just isn't sustainable.

I'd argue that being able to articulate a culture comprehensively in writing is a good indicator that the culture is distinct, authentic, and sustainable. If it's not possible to do so, the culture probably isn't sustainable.

Detroit’s Culture

First let me say, there’s no document (that I can find) that articulates Detroit’s culture like the Netflix or Valve Software documents that I linked to above. But that’s not the point. The point is whether one could document Detroit’s (or any other organization’s) culture if they tried.

In Detroit, I don’t think we could document a single, cohesive, culture even if we tried. Detroit has at least two worlds (this is actually something my friends and I talk about a lot) But, I think this is a point reasonable people could disagree about. If you disagree, I welcome you to add comments on this page and list out your articulation of Detroit’s culture.

But for a moment let’s assume that Detroit does have a single, cohesive culture and identity. If that’s the case our culture certainly not documented or explicitly identifiable via some others medium. We should try to do this.

Documenting our cultural norms and practices would allow us as Detroiters to argue about what is good and bad about our culture and identify elements to evolve. We could put in systems to amplify the culture (an example of this is type of system would be the Andon cord at Toyota or Google’s CEO signing off on every single hire at the company). We could put in policies to police the parts of the culture that are destructive. It would also be a way for people outside Detroit to get a sense of what Detroit is truly like.

Most importantly though, having a strong culture (that’s identifiable) helps with decision making. When weighing several options – say for how to deal with influxes of investment and development downtown – having identifiable cultural norms helps guide how decision makers should weigh the options. As an example, If equity were a prominent part of our culture, that everyone agreed to, decision makers might choose a less lucrative investment if it was more fair to existing residents. Cultural norms are a decision-making heuristic of sorts.

Now, it’s possible to run an organization (or a city, like Detroit) without a common set of cultural norms and values. There's nothing wrong with having a community of sub-cultures, it can work. The downside is that it leads to conflict. Look at San Francisco and the opposition to tech company shuttles and the creative class in the city. Because of different sub-cultures (that have conflicting values) existing in the city, it is leading to cultural clash.

With this example in mind, we can have distinct sub-cultures without an overarching common set of values, but we will have to resign ourselves to the fact that there will be conflict.

I think there are real benefits for creating an environment where culture can develop. And that’s exactly how I think it happens…you create environment for culture to occur and it develops on its own. In the long-term (at best), individual agents can only influence culture, not prescribe it.

This emergent phenomenon doesn’t happen in places where there aren’t connections across communities and inclusive participation of the entire population. So if we want to develop a unified culture in Detroit, that’s what we should do, make institutions and public dialogue inclusive.