The culture of an organization can obstruct progress

Concept capabilities culture
The path of an idea, as described by Satya Nadella. Graphic by Bill Gabbert.

In exploring how Microsoft’s Hololens might affect the development, planning, and communication of strategy and tactics on a wildfire, we ran across an article about Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO. Mr. Nadella is transforming the company in many ways, especially in implementing methods for the various divisions to work together and how to encourage the acceptance of new ideas leading to the development of ground breaking products.

In an article in Wired by Jessi Hempel, Mr. Nadella described the evolution of ideas in an organization, and how they progress, or get stalled, as they attempt to move through a series of three concentric circles: Concept, Capabilities, and Culture. I took the liberty of transforming his description into the graphic image above.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

Nadella squats in front of a dinged-up black laminate coffee table and sketches three concentric circles on a piece of scratch paper. A wiry man with a shaved head and black-framed eyeglasses, he has a voice with a range of octaves but only one moderate volume. The outer ring, he explains, is Concepts—the vision that allows the company to think up new things like Project HoloLens. Inside this, he labels the second circle Capabilities—the engineering and design skills necessary to make things. Nadella pauses on the smallest circle, the center of the bull’s-eye, which he labels Culture. “You need a culture that is fundamentally not opposed to new concepts and new capabilities,” he says.

Microsoft has had no problem with the outer circles. It has combined vision with breathtaking engineering to create a whole bunch of amazing prototypes. But they rarely make it to market. That’s because, over the past two decades, its culture has grown competitive and insular, more consumed with getting and protecting an edge than pushing into riskier new businesses. People were motivated to produce things they knew their managers would like, rather than take risks on new ideas that might fail. The company’s money-minting core offerings, Windows and Office, sucked up talent and attention while newer ideas got overlooked.

Mr. Nadella’s description indicates that Microsoft’s culture was the cause of death of too many ideas and innovative concepts, something he is attempting to change.

Many land managers and wildland firefighters who work for large federal and state agencies have experienced the same mortality of new ideas that had the potential to improve the way natural resources are managed, or may have made firefighting more efficient or reduced risks. However the culture of a hierarchy of risk averse managers who did everything they could to avoid making tough decisions may have torpedoed the suggestion.

In 1994 this culture led me to write the first article that I had published. It was titled A Top 10 List: Reasons why you can’t do that, and continues to live on buried in the archives of Wildfire Today where it was republished in 2011.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “The culture of an organization can obstruct progress”

  1. BTDT and some cases, still pretty well firmly in place in many State and Fed operations

    Anything different 21 yrs later, Bill?


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