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Cultural Agility: A Corporate Superpower

Published in The Economic Times & Times of India.

Last weekend, I was to meet some of my old friends. They all work in the same software company, which was recently acquired by a larger firm. I sighted my pals with their heads together at the brunch table. The air was crackling with speculation, tension and a lot of hushed, excited talk.

Intrigued, I hopped on board. They were discussing the scaled restructuring that the company was undergoing. There had been a few pink slips. New leadership teams were taking over. The office space was being re-designed, to fit the new culture. Old procedures and ways of life were being questioned and re-modelled.

It was emotionally daunting for some of my buddies, while the others found it very refreshing. They had all been there for nearly a decade.

However, there was a common streak of fear in their cogitations. Apparently, their new Vice President had been taking a long, hard look at one of their core software offerings (an SCM solution). It needed a runtime of 8-12 hours before aggregating analytics. This was one of the company’s oldest, most established programs, and had served them well all these years. But we live in a new world, where technology advances at paces never before known. And the VP was able to single-handedly pen down new code, in a short time, that performed the tasks of the old engine in 16 minutes, instead of 8 hours.

He came down hard on the old management and engineering team, asking what the 50 engineers working on that product had been doing all these days! How come none of them had bothered to upgrade their technological know-how, and improvise their automations. Their salary hikes were going to be at stake.

The engineers blamed the management. Their job was to write code and fix bugs in the system provided. It was the Managerial job to make big decisions about new technology and new products, right?

The managers blamed their seniors, as well as the engineers. They were client-facing. They had day-to-day business decisions to make, stakeholders to satiate. Tech-savvy-Ness is an engineering thing, right? Weren't the engineers supposed to be passionate about technology? It was their duty to up-skill and stay refurbished! Besides, their clients were happy with what they had to offer. What was the need to make dramatic technical shifts?

Now, we’ve all heard the term ‘Agile’ - in the software world. It refers to the ability to pivot on new technology and new client-demands to stay on top of the league. But how many organizations are successful in being agile?

On giving it some thought, we realize that it is more a matter of ‘Cultural Agility’ than ‘Technical Agility’.

In the case of my friends’ company, the work culture had segregated teams to such an extent, that they were almost blind to the larger picture. The employees did NOT relate to the term ‘product ownership’. They were not exposed to the market and competition, to understand the latest trends. They came in every day, sat through their routine rut, and went back home. They were too tired to do anything beyond that.

There were no programs in the company to revitalize employees – making place for creativity, innovation, experimentation or wellness. Ideation exchange with the high level management was nil.

Needless to say, the workforce in this company, while comprising of talented minds, was DULL, nonchalant and un-lively. Office politics raged.

Truthfully, if you are in a corporate job, can you tell me exactly what the other teams in your firm are working on? What technology they use, which clients they serve, what innovations they are making, how can they evolve? And in your own team, do you know how your work fits into the company’s overall offering? What is your value-add? Is there something you or your team can do better?

Yes, you need to give these concepts some thought, no matter your role. How else will you grow in the company, and help your company grow too? If you have managed to answer some of these questions, I assure you, you are among the tiny percentage of people who could do so. The majority are clueless about the big picture and the leadership role they can acquire for themselves.

Can you imagine your leg doing it’s own dance, your arm doing it’s own spin, without the body functioning as ‘ONE WHOLE UNIT’? What if your right eye wants to read that new book, but your left eye wants to just check out the pretty girl passing by? Imagine your face! Well, I know that would be an entertaining situation, but the point here is, as a person, we need to operate as ‘ONE COGNITIVE UNIT’. Else your work suffers. And every company, the same way, needs to be ‘ONE COGNITIVE UNIT’. We need better gelling between different operations and teams - to truly understand, streamline and upgrade the services of the company. We need more cultural agility for employees to see how they can contribute to other teams and to the company’s business outcomes.

While all companies talk about culture, agility and employee engagement, most of them are still far from tapping into the true potential of their people. Like another acquaintance pointed out to me on LinkedIn, change-makers are looked upon as ‘rebels’ instead of being given the space to innovate. Or the HR teams and the ‘Higher-Up’s’ are simply not responsive enough to new requests. Until they receive a big wake-up call from the new market, like my friends did!

Here are five quick suggestions to refresh your work-culture:

1) Have ‘Integration’ sessions every month, where different teams and stakeholders come together, to understand all operations and vision of the company. Encourage free-flow of thoughts and ideas to improve as a whole.

2) Have an ‘Energy Audit’- to check on the physical and emotional well-being of every member. Run wellness camps, workshops, coaching sessions, health provisions etc. to improve both physical and mental energy of your co-workers.

3) Cultivate Friendships – Spending 70% of our days at work, we deserve to live surrounded by ‘friends’, rather than boss, team-lead, manager, intern etc. Have parties, trips and various activities that help your people shed labels and be good friends. Have policies in place to minimize politics.

4) Create Cheerful Spaces – Would you feel energetic in a claustrophobic cell or in spacious, thoughtfully-designed, fresh workspaces? The environment can make us grumpy or cheerful. Choose positive environments to boost focus, creativity and happiness.

5) Take Risks – Try new players in new roles. Experiment with new technology. Accept ‘different’ ideations, people, procedures, philosophies. Alan Turing said, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.” Let everyone lead in their own style, and the results can awe you!

Here’s to better work cultures and better profits!

By Sindhujaa Kumar

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