Cultural Determinism – A guide to Corporate predestination from the Scotland and England football teams

If you are unaware, there is a particularly joyless thread of religion known as Calvinism where everyone’s future status in the afterlife is predestined and essentially, regardless of what you do you will be end up in the same state.

For a lot of corporations, the history of culture, leadership and approach means that there is an inbuilt expectation of what will happen based on past experience and behaviours will reinforce this expectation. The best way to think about it is to consider what happens when someone new joins your own organisation. They will typically look to create new things based on their previous experience but will eventually ‘go native’ and slow down as the unspoken power of cultural predestination wears them down.

The living embodiment of this was borne out over the past few weeks in the football world cup where not only did Scotland snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, England managed to lose on penalties, in a semi-final. Again.

As a Scot myself, watching as Scotland were smashing Argentina all over the field as we took our lead to 3-0 with 15 minutes to play gave me an unusual feeling.  Watching the referee give a penalty to England with 5 minutes to go was a similarly novel experience. Fortunately for the cosmic order of things, normal service was very quickly resumed as Scotland lost 3 quick goals (including a retake of a saved penalty) and England missed their 3rdpenalty out of 4 in the tournament to ultimately stagger and fall just short of the line.

Now, if you are aware of the history of the Scotland football team, we have historically been the living embodiment of glorious failure. For example, we remain the only team to have gone out the world cup on a coin toss!! The emotional journey of watching England is no less consistent; expectation raised to fever pitch, emotional outpourings of how the tournament ‘has brought the country together’, singing of songs regarding how they were going to win the tournament. Then…a missed penalty leading to national outpouring of grief.

However, for Scotland in particular there was a big difference this time.

1)   It was the Scotland women playing in their first world cup (with no history to live up (or down) to)

2)   They are a great team who beat Brazil and drew with world champions US in the build-up to the tournament and who won their qualifying group (a recent record of success)

3)   Their players play for teams like Arsenal and Man City (no issue with quality of resource

They nonetheless managed to collapse as they got close to a great achievement. When the possibility for something different was there, they found a way to do exactly what you would have expected them too.

Which brings me to considering the corporate world.

Your culture ‘muscle memory’– what you’ve done in the past has the power to override any changes in personal, any training or any strategy you might put in place. You might be known for a particular style or approach that the company takes which continues to influence how everyone approaches change. You might try and introduce new ways of working like agile or design thinking but having a mindset that says ‘we’ve tried this in past and it hasn’t worked’ however unspoken or implied, will tend to strangle the idea of change before it gets a chance. 

You need to consider how you get a few wins first to change the dynamic a little. 

Overcompensation – you see a lot of organisations who are known for a particular style or approach try to go completely in the other direction. They recognise what challenges they have so they try too hard. They have a reputation of being a bit old fashioned and boring so they ‘buy a Ferrari’ at which point they are just look a bit sad and end up driving the car like a 1992 Ford Sierra. You can’t outspend a culture problem. You might hire a team of expert designers and a brand new innovation centre (and then use them to make documents pretty and invite clients in to show them some very fancy videos).

You need to think about the mechanism you us to get from old to new and it doesn’t have to be big-bang all the time.

It’s the hope that kills you – to mis-quote John Cleese. The failure you can cope with, it’s the hope that kills you. Setting a target and an expectation for change is great only if it is achieved. If you promise people something which isn’t delivered then the next time you try, that inbuild hope and expectation is eroded to a point where the buy-in and commitment to change isn’t there. Even then at a point of achieving something great, the memory of failure is enough to introduce doubtwhich then brings the whole thing down.

You need to not send grandiose targets which you don’t end up meeting, or even worse set some new principles with nothing behind them.

So what

Scotland were brilliant even to get to the world cup and they should be proud, England were even better and very almost made it to the final. However, was there a big hand of predestiny on their shoulders when it came to the crunch?When a new strategy appears in your inbox about changing ways of working or improving the culture. Do you work through to the natural conclusion that it’s no different from any other time?

When the Scotland goalkeeper was standing on her line waiting for her saved penalty to be retaken, she barely moved an inch to save the second attempt. It’s possible that she simply didn’t know what to do to please the ref but it’s also possible; that unable to escape the natural fate of things, she came to embrace her destiny and simply watched the ball sail past her to seal another preordained exit.

When the promise of something better comes up, do you yourself sit on the line expecting the goal to go in?

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