How to reset a broken culture?

I’d recently read “Rework“, the book that 37signals’ founders wrote about what they learned along the way while growing their business, and why they think the mould about setting up a small business (or growing into a larger business) shouldn’t just be broken, but thrown away too.

It made me think about the things I’ve done right – being myself, being open and honest, feeling my customers’ pain, and the things I’ve done wrong – being overkeen to delegate, defer, insist, be grouchy, and allow myself be pushed into creating policy to deal with a corner case instead of dealing with it properly, falling into the various terrible management traps that lie in wait, trying to catch you out when you least expect it.

One recurring theme throughout the book, though in many different shapes and sizes, is the simple and old-fashioned adage of “treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself”, and that’s something I really identified with. It’s something we should live our life by more often.

Take, for example, my experience earlier this year with Air New Zealand, the one that upset me enough that I felt I needed to blog about it. From the long delay to respond, to the dreadful bland impersonal boilerplate that eventually arrived. When I think of the message I originally sent to them, I also relate to the comment in “Rework” on the topic of dealing with large organisations and contact centres: The tone of my message pretty much said that I was expecting to be fobbed off with a bland answer.

I’d already fallen into the trap of being passive aggressive, already expecting to be disappointed.

Yet, I thought I was doing the right thing by letting them know I was unhappy with the changes they had made to the product. The better customer is the one who lets you know they aren’t comfortable with something, right? Surely it would be worse if I just left in silence?

I guess this says a lot about airlines, and their corporate cultures, as they seem to be one of the organisations with terribly broken cultures – ridden with industrial dispute, impersonality, and at times even showing utter contempt for the customer.

Oh, and Air NZ for the most part seems to be a shining light among the aviation industry in how to have a good culture, so don’t think I’m picking on them here, just one small corner of their domain seems to have a problem – other airlines are notorious for being far, far worse.

Just how would you, could you, change the culture of something so damaged as an airline? I’d flown Virgin America a fair bit in the first few months of the year, and I was quite impressed with how they do things and the attitude of their staff. It seems obvious that they haven’t yet developed this ridiculous culture of petty rules and policies, and the management haven’t yet shat on their employees enough (by falling down corporate policy ratholes) to make them cranky and militant. But how long can it continue? Hopefully a long time, as once they’ve fallen down the hole, it seems very hard to get back out..

Changing the industry, I’m going to pick on Apple, but for the same reason as I picked on Air NZ, iffy treatment of the customer.

A friend had a malfunctioning Apple laptop, and was away from home. She’s an alpha geek and knows her stuff. It was pretty obvious the hard disk was dying, and then it did fail. Being away from home, this was her only means of doing any real work, so she called the nearest Apple store in California, with a view to making a Genius Bar appointment, and as she was leaving the next day to the East Coast, if they had the required hard disk in stock. The Apple staff member’s answer was “Sorry, policy does not allow me to give that information out on the phone”.

The Apple staffer may as well have just said “I’m afraid company policy doesn’t allow me to be helpful”. What has Apple done to that employee to make them so snotty? What has happened to make them have such an unhelpful policy?

Still, armed with a Genius Bar appointment, off she toddled, only for the problem to be misdiagnosed and told she needed a reinstall – onto a broken bit of spinning media – right, real Genius at work.

Fortunately, there was a Plan B, which was a Genius Bar appointment on the East Coast for the following day, where their Apple guy proved his real Genius by a) correctly diagnosing the disk failure, and b) getting a replacement disk installed, all within a 24 hours. Why couldn’t the Californians have been like that?

Furthermore, what has happened to the Apple Store culture? It used to be one of helpfulness. I’d used the Genius Bar in the past and dealt with clueful individuals more than once.

Since the iPhone/iPad phenomena, it seems to have been reduced to ridiculous policies and treating the customer as a commodity, like animals shuffling into a holding pen.

One morning I walked past a bunch of people being corralled in tensabarrier by an Apple employee (with an iProd?) outside an Apple Store, being allowed in one or two at a time, like naughty teenage schoolkids at a sweetshop. There’s also the weird situation around a product release, where unless you are buying whatever the latest product is, you (and your business) aren’t really welcome at the Apple Store. Obviously, the rest of the world stops whenever there is an Apple iProduct release.

Mixing a great culture with size and expecting it to scale up seems like a real challange, and resetting what’s become a broken culture, so that you end up nurturing a culture that works, sounds like an even bigger challenge. So many companies miss the point, throwing the baby out with the bathwater trying while trying to restore the past, or their visionaries just leave the sinking ship to start all over again (and maybe make the same mistakes all over again).

So just how do you fix a broken culture, in a genuine way, without dismissing what you have as a “bad job” and starting over?

From the top-down, and bottom-up, it’s back to treating others how you would expect to be treated yourself.

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