Hi pioneer

Halle-bloody-lujah fellow pioneers! This week I left my village for the first time in months. And even better, I got to speak face to face (at an appropriate distance) to people outside of my immediate family. What a joy! It turns out even the most introvert and socially averse amongst us appreciates human contact once in a while.

It was great to get out, but it was also a joy because I got to spend a few hours trying to help one of our favourite clients to escape the invisible chains of their meta-culture.

“Whoa!” I hear you say. “Escaping their meta-culture… that sounds like a load of wafty nonsense Matt”.

“Why, yes” I say. “Wafty nonsense is my stock-in-trade. Surely that’s what you signed up to the newsletter for”.

So without further ado, let’s get tucked into that wafty nonsense like it’s a crisp roast parsnip.


What the Jeff is a meta-culture?

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that we think there are four influences on the culture of a scale-up:

  1. The attitudes, values, personality and behaviour of its founders
  2. Events, dear boy, events!
  3. Meta-cultures
  4. And the system or situation in which people work (what we call the peopleOS)

***A quick aside***

“The peopleOS…” you say. “That sounds like the most original and insightful idea to hit the world of management since that Taylor chap went round factories with his clipboard and stopwatch”.

“Shucks” I say “I mean, yeah, I guess it could be the most groundbreaking management insight ever to come out of West Oxfordshire. And I suppose, if you’re looking to create the culture that will supercharge the growth of your company it’s the one insight that could really make the difference between success and failure.”

“If only there was a beautifully designed, accessible playbook I could download that would introduce me to the concept of a peopleOS and walk me through how I can apply it to my business” you say.

“Well, funny you should mention that…”

“You can’t seriously be giving this depth of thinking away for free?” you say. “I would have expected to pay at least £9.99 for this”

“Well I guess I’m just that sort of a guy. So generous. So keen to please. How about you pay it forward and make a £9.99 donation to a charity of your choice?” I say. Winning further credit in your mind for being such an all round bloody great bloke.

“If you want to please…” you say, “how about you stop this ridiculous dialogue with yourself. You’re not Socrates.”

Ok enough nonsense, let’s get back to those meta-cultures…

What do we mean by a meta-culture? Meta-cultures are the mindsets, values, ways of working, cultural norms etc that apply across companies.

Different industries have different meta-cultures. There’s a set of assumptions about how you run a retail business that are different to the assumptions that inform the culture of a bank. The stronger the meta-culture, the more companies within an industry or profession tend to look alike. There really isn’t that much variety in culture and ways of working of big city law firms for example.

Geographies also have different organisational meta-cultures. There are different assumptions that influence the culture of companies in Japan, compared with France, Germany or the US.

Popular management ideas also create meta-cultures. Things like lean start-up, agile and six sigma are meta-cultures that influence the ways of working across companies.

Now meta-cultures aren’t a bad thing. If you’re running a company, you don’t have the time to invent everything. Buying into a meta-culture like lean start-up for example, saves you a lot of time and effort.

But meta-cultures can be silent killers, when you’re blind to their influence. Especially if you’re a disruptor.

Why? Because meta-cultures make you like everyone else. If you adopt the same structures, practices and ways of working as everyone else in the industry, how do you expect to be disruptive and different?!

My go to example…

Imagine you start your own restaurant business. You grow to 8 to 10 sites. What do you do? You hire an Area Manager. Why? Because every restaurant business since the dawn of time has hired an Area Manager when they get to 8-10 sites. And they keep on hiring more Area Managers for every dozen new sites they open.

Now my problem isn’t hiring an Area Manager… it’s hiring an Area Manager without thinking about why you’re doing it or what the alternatives might be. You’re just doing it because that’s what everyone else does. And again that’s fine, so long as you don’t aspire to be different, disruptive or to create a culture that gives you a competitive advantage.

If you want to be disruptive and if you’ve heard of this thing called ‘the internet’, maybe you could do something more imaginative than employing a well paid manager to filter and forward emails to 12 restaurant managers.

Think of the things that get introduced into scale-ups because it’s the done thing: performance appraisals, career paths, pay bands, employee handbooks. All the HR crap that kills what was special about your culture.

Enough of me, other people see this too...

Check out this video from Gary Hamel. The ‘historical sweep’ of his intro might not be your thing 🥱, in which case skip to the bit about 12 minutes in, where he says: “Is there an ancien regime today that needs to be challenged? Is there a set of deeply embedded beliefs about human beings that is limiting our prosperity, that is limiting our capacity and our economies to drive productivity and standards of living higher.”

Professor Hamel’s challenge is a good one (I get the impression he wants us to know he’s a Professor 😉):

“What are the deep toxic beliefs inside your organisation… that may be strangling human capability?”

He shares four ideas to get you started:

  1. The assumption that human beings are the instruments of the company – that they are “human resource” engaged to make a profit. But what if the institution worked for the people, not the people for the institution? (Hint… if you looked at it this way round you’d create a peopleOS… If only there was a beautifully designed, accessible playbook to get you started on this journey…).
  2. Valuing people’s ability to conform, to be predictable and reliable above diversity, deviation and experimentation.
  3. That authority trickles down a hierarchy. (In my opinion, this is a really good one). Think about how much rubbish work and wasted time can be traced back to someone’s motivation to impress their boss or to keep them happy.
  4. That roles and structures are fixed by the organisation and that people need to contribute in the defined role they’ve been given.

Let me add one more thing to Gary’s, sorry Professor Hamel’s, list… and it’s the one that for me at least, gets at the heart of why this is such a crucial time for people to start questioning meta-cultures.

Here’s my challenge: is now the time for us to start challenging the most prevalent meta-cultural assumption of the last 200 years — that companies should organise their people to maximise efficiency.

It’s agility, not efficiency that has helped businesses navigate COVID. And in my opinion, we should expect more of this type of volatility and turmoil in the years ahead.

I believe we’re now in an age where the most successful companies will not be driven by the precept of maximising profit. Think about Amazon – it’s a crazy, money generating behemoth… but it didn’t worry about making a single dollar of profit for over a decade, it continues to reinvest its cash in development and it’s driven by a single minded purpose to create the most customer centric solutions in all the markets it operates. They’re not driving for profit (at least not yet).

I’m not sure what the alternative is. Maybe the key to success will be to maximise agility and the speed of learning over profit. Maybe it’s about delivering on a higher purpose. Maybe it’s about satisfying a plurality of principles or goals. But I am 100% convinced that there has never been a more dangerous time to unthinkingly fall into a meta-culture.

If that’s got you thinking, here are two more things to check out:

General McCrystal’s book Team of Team’s is a must read. Here’s a video of him talking to the Royal United Services Institute about how he overcame the threat of Al Qaida in Iraq by changing the fundamental organisational assumptions of the US military.

General Stanley McCrystal

This blog from the Corporate Rebels should give you some inspiration for escaping the “we need to recruit Area Managers” trap.


If you’ve made it to the end of this week’s newsletter you deserve a medal. Well done.

If you’ve made it this far and you enjoyed the experience, please do me a favour and share this newsletter with everyone else you know who might also enjoy it.

And if someone shared it with you, and you got this far, and you enjoyed it, and you want more of it – click here to sign yourself up.

Until next week…

Matt

Founder and man who can only dream of being as erudite as Professor Hamel, at The Pioneers