The Myth of Cultural Fit

Agile management practices have tremendous import for changing the entire business ecosystem, and to my mind at least, may soon make "cultural fit" a thing of the past. Personally speaking, when a client utters the phrase "cultural fit", I tend to cringe. I think by now most of us know full well that "cultural fit" is a weak concept that needs serious reconsideraton. 

One of the biggest problems (that has only recently become glaringly obvious to YAHOO) is that the "cultural fit" model used in top-down management presents is an inconsistent and unreliable criterion for hiring, firing and judging the performance of staffers. Frequently misunderstood and over-emphasized by poorly trained HR folks, "cultural fit" is riddled with biases, outdated modes of operating in the monostatic marketplace and potential legal issues. 

Before we jump in, let me be clear about terms as there as some very smart folks out there who might take issue with my usage of "agile". That is fine, I encourage my readers to do this if I am confusing the terminology of "Agile" development with "agile management". I'm not, by the way. 

I use "agile" to refer to an iterative, incremental methodology for management. I relate it to developmental activities in a wide variety of commercial and operational settings. Especially those that aim to provide new product or service development in a highly flexible and interactive manner; an example is its application in Scrum, an original form of agile software development.* It requires capable individuals to engage openly, to provide consistent input, and fluidity to management, particularly by adopting non-hierarchical forms of leadership.

More specifically, adaptive project life cycle is intended to facilitate change and require a high degree of ongoing stakeholder involvement, and so, for obvious reasons, this kind of thinking has powerful import for how organizations think about staffing in the non-traditional commercial setting.

In many ways "cultural fit" has always been a cheap hack. In the age of agile management, holistic considerations of the overall organizational flow trump whether or not someone likes PHISH, ping-pong and taco trucks. Let me give you a sense of how "cultural fit" can be a destructive top-down consideration and not a constructive, bottom-up, holistic factor in the workplace.

Tax rules in the United States are biased toward full-time employment relationships and as a result, leaders may keep external resources at arm’s length to avoid potential legal problems. I once worked for a savvy, but ultimately misguided CEO, who always wanted to hire the cheapest resource, plain and straightforward. "Grind them" was one of his favorite aphorisms for negotiating salaries. Saving money on sub-contractors or interns is risky business when their actual role is operational and more of an employee's. Often smaller companies will utilize externals or sub-contractual loopholes to skirt issues around healthcare, proper pay, and taxes.

One particular CEO talked my ear off about how we could get an "amazing technical writer/intern" for "just above minimum wage" because he was, guess what?...a "perfect cultural fit".  If the prospect of paying someone a sub-standard wage was not worrisome enough, when I interviewed the young man, he turned out to be a college freshman on summer vacation and the son of a board member. While the existing team members desperately wanted the best resource, this "kid" (he was) seemed like the perfect way to save money to the CEO. He, like the owner, was a fan of certain kinds of music and extracurricular activities, an inexpensive alternative, and a good way to keep an otherwise anxious board member happy. The CEO talked me into it, and declared his pet project as a "protected species." In other words, I couldn't fire him. In a matter of weeks, our "cultural fit" turned out to be an almost disastrous hire whose complete lack of experience and immaturity nearly cost the firm a major client In just a few weeks, he managed to disrupt the entire workplace. Firing him turned out to be a waste time, taxed everyone's reserves, and sucked needed energy out of the operation. 

I am not suggesting that sub-contracted talent cannot be a tremendous benefit to organizations and possess capability that internals do not have. I am making the point that they can cause a bit of chaos when they are chosen for arbitrary reasons and have other incentive but to get the work done as quickly as possible. External folks may balk at internal politics or simply be unable to adapt to the workplace, yet another reason I do not encourage the "cultural fit" kool-aid model that makes a firm seem more like a fraternity than a place of work. Similarly, organizations that view externals as clueless about the business and unwilling or unable to have a thorough understanding of the organization’s issues are not going to be successful. A thoughtful, conscientious model of agile management is what is needed to sort through these matters.

There are four critical factors that I continually stress to clients when identifying what is mission critical and to assist them in leveraging strategic imperative across the firm so that all individuals felt equally respected, inspired and brought onto the team.

First, consider how rigorous your company intends to be about defining the role, relationship, and scope of initiatives addressed by consultants, advisers, tech-gurus or even interns.

Second, is "cultural fit" or expediency more important? Sometimes shaking things up a bit with a "high-performance rock-star" might be just the trick to light the necessary kindling under the appropriate office chair. There is nothing wrong with hiring an ultra-talented person who does not "fit in". In fact, it might be a great move.

Third, when considering schedule, budget, and existing resources, does the work have the right level of sponsorship consistent with what is required for success? Do not skirt legal issues or underpay your people, period.

Last, consider whether or not you are managing for high performance or just plain old results. This will make a big difference in determining the actual basis of your need.

The best way to do this is to define clearly, establish, and communicate the exact needs instead of using the external resource as an "extra pair of hands" or cheerleader. Consider how you will judge their performance and provide feedback in a realistic way.

Agility, not Kool-Aid.

If your firm is set up to work well with externals, and they are treated well, then the organization can avoid bureaucracy. You do this by making certain workflows and processes are communicated appropriately, that people are paid promptly and well, and that the orientation of the organization is appreciated by the contractor. That does not mean they have to drink the Kool-aid, it means their intention to do great work is honored and aligned with your goals

In an agile scenario, aligning your organization with the needs and expectations of both your internal team and the increasingly external, project-based marketplace is critical to avoiding the pratfalls of hiring or utilizing the wrong resource.

Over the course of the last fifteen years of advising corporate leaders, I’ve noticed that many of my clients are simply clueless as to how both internal and subcontracted resources should be managed. Many have a built-in bias about the transferability or durability of their "culture" and are often ignorant of the details of how agile their organizations are—organizationally, administratively, and culturally. Even worse, the most absentee of these CEOs can be downright paranoid about hiring Sr. Consultants who have the ability to make changes quickly. On the one hand, the hired-gun mentality seems as outdated as manual labor itself, and yet, the use of non-traditional, external, and for b2b subcontracted talent is growing more commonplace.

Organizations that get the most from their entire team engage, motivate, and build teams that understand the bigger picture and whose human quirks are appreciated. They take the time to listen.

They are more interested in being agile than creating a full-proof culture.

Most "regular" folks want to make meaning while at work. They want to learn new things and create new opportunities for themselves. Most of all, they want to be treated as a part of the team, be rewarded with feedback and dialogue. When new hires or sub-contractors are thrown into the fire and not given enough information, they end up wasting time trying to catch on and catch up. You cannot blame someone for feeling powerless in dealing with the bureaucracy of a place they have never set foot in before.

For more reasons than one, most if not all business will scale to and use sub-contractors to accommodate a large project or to bolster the existing team. Firms engage senior consultants (like myself) individuals, and even entire teams, in non-traditional work arrangements. Managers in these companies understand that leveraging key strategic talent and increasing strategic capabilities can happen quickly, but they need to be prepared.

In the immortal words of my grandfather, "if you do not have the right tool, you'll take twice as long and turn an easy job into a tough one".


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