Thursday, August 7, 2008

Culture change

I've noticed that one of the conventions of this media is to apologize to your (presumed) readers for any prolonged gap in production, so consider this my gesture toward that convention. Following a pattern of professional restlessness, I've been in transition, but starting to settle in enough to make make an initial observation.

While my sojourning career track will undoubtedly have all kinds of negative consequences, one thing it has enabled is a fairly wide view of different agency-like environments in a relatively short time. I've learned a bunch of different so-called proprietary practices and techniques, been exposed to all kinds of "leadership" styles, and saw a whole bunch of attempts to endow different environments with creative energy through interior design: lots of glass or big screen TV's or stainless steel or polished concrete or ironic posters or what all.

And over the years, I've noticed that business--and creative businesses in particular--are fascinated with various magic ingredients which go by the name of "cultural change." The thinking goes that if you can just create or cultivate a cultural change, you can transform the whole company. It's easy to understand why: culture sounds both free and easy--compared to saying hiring top talent or moving your office or winning a new set of clients--but of course it's neither.

In my experience, while it's definitely true that different places have dramatically different cultures. And it's also true that these cultures have a pretty strong impact on the kind of work they manage to do (in both good and bad ways), it doesn't follow that you can change it. Most of the attempts I've seen (superficial or not) haven't had much of an impact on an agency's work. It would be great if you could improve the agency's creative product by sending a bunch of people to a show at P.S. 1 but it never seems to work like that.

Just because something is important doesn't necessarily mean you can do anything about it, though these kind of statements tend to fret against the 'nothing is impossible' spirit of American business. And while it's not impossible, it's very very hard to change a company culture, just as it's very hard to change a Brit into an Italian or vice versa, and likely for the same reason: changing a culture usually means changing the very people who are trying to institute the cultural change.

In my very first day on my last couple jobs I had conversations that would have been if not impossible than pretty unthinkable at other jobs, less because of particular skills than because of the assumptions behind the conversations and the intentions that drove them. I could give you examples but they require a whole other post: culture, as they say in my previous trade, goes deep indeed. The easiest way to change it is to cross the border yourself.