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A lesson in culture

Arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam was an experience I’ll never forget. Driving from the airport to where we stayed we were greeted by a bustling city, scooters everywhere, smog, dilapidated and new houses, rice farms, people literally living on each street, narrow alleyways, propaganda billboards, and the smell of barbecued food. To say it is a sensory overload, is an understatement. Vietnam is rich with culture, history, art, cuisine, and an amazing people.

Visiting the war museum in Hanoi was one of the highlights for me. I knew little about the deep history Vietnam has and the many conflicts the nation has been involved in over the centuries, starting with the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, then the Americans. I am reasonably familiar with the American war as I grew up watching many Hollywood movies forming various opinions of the conflict, fearing the Vietcong  their horrifying booby traps, and their vicious prison camps. Apocalypse comes to mind instantly.

This is what I learned:

The U.S. entered the war to reach an objective. That objective was to stop communist expansion. The goal was not achieved, therefore, the U.S. lost the war. True, there were more casualties for the North, but that does not determine whether or not they lost, considering the superior technology and training of the U.S. forces.

The Vietnamese won the war. The Vietcong defeated the Americans with only a limited amount of guns and artillery.

So how did they prevail?

  • They used systems of underground tunnels and traps to capture American soldiers.
  • They had Ho Chi Minh as a leader.
  • His key strategy was to gain support of the peasants in the North.
  • They were proud and determined.
  • They had a history of defeating invading armies.
  • They knew every inch of their country intimately.
  • Everyone became a soldier.
  • The bravery, particularly of the women.

The people we met in modern Vietnam were delightful. Happy, vibrant, optimistic. They are extremely proud of who they are. Yet compared to us Westerners they are small in stature, lean and almost frail people. Yet they prevailed. Remarkable.

The corporate “tunnels”

Have you ever been involved in a discussion about organisational culture? What it is? How it influence people and their workplaces. It is not the easiest concept to quantify. Yet, it profoundly impacts on organisational performance.  Although most managers are aware of it, they find it hard to grasp let alone change it.

I was facilitating a leadership program recently and we were discussing corporate culture, when it dawned on me. This is it. It is The Tunnel Complex. Corporations consist of extensive and deep seated “tunnel systems”. The collective behaviours of people, norms, memories (that can stretch back decades), good and bad experiences, and legacies of previous leaders. These “tunnels” are complex webs interwoven, entrenched and ” buried” deeply below the organisation. The people “living” in these tunnels are usually long serving employees who know the system exceptionally well, they are typically on the lower end of the organisational chart, have seen successive managers come and go, they have experienced one management “fad” after the other imposed on them, they tend to be cynical of any new interventions or management initiatives, they are generally mistrustful of senior managers, they have seen mates being ill treated, perhaps themselves. They know they will prevail, eventually. History tells them so. It is these “tunnel” systems what makes culture so difficult to change. Therefore, an understanding of how they operate in organisations could lead to valuable insights and ultimately strategies on how to change them. This is the essence of what I refer to as The Tunnel Complex.

Do you know your organisations’ “tunnel” systems ?

 The solution

  • Respect the history of your organisation. Be very careful to not be dismissive of it.
  • Understand the ingrained behaviours and customs of your organisation – the “tunnels”.
  • Study these and develop strategies for change.
  • Genuinely see your employees as “friendlies”, not the enemy. i.e. costly overheads.
  • Have a clear well articulated and understood vision. That people believe in. A compelling story.
  • Develop a workforce that is proud and determined about the brand they represent.
  • Gain support by earning the trust and respect of everyone.
  • Engineer a new, powerful “tunnel” system that enables business performance.
  • Be a good leader.

 “It always comes down to the people”.