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To be a challenger once, it is enough to challenge the orthodoxies of the incumbents; to be a challenger twice, a firm must be capable of challenging its own orthodoxies.

— Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad; Competing for the Future


Orthodoxy is the gremlin of organizational cultures.

We are familiar with gremlins.  We don’t want to see them in the vicinity, especially not out on the wing

But, orthodoxy?  Hit the link to get a more detailed definition; but for here and now we’ll go with authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.

So now let’s revisit: orthodoxy is the gremlin of organizational cultures translates to authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice can wreak havoc and bring down the flight of organizations like nobody’s business.

Stay with me.

I have early and often pondered here on the topic of organizational culture. I find culture a curious thing.  It is challenging to pin down, describe, and understand its origins, let alone get a clue on how to change it.

My first culture thoughts in Don’t Climb That Pole! extrapolated from some monkey business to get a glimpse of the birth of culture gremlins.

In Management by Walking Around … In a Loop we explored how our learned behaviors can make us reticent and make our managers, well, loopy … orthodoxy gremlins on the wings.

In Rabbit Chase we laughed at the struggles of the FBI, CIA, and NYPD when trying to catch an elusive rabbit in the forest.  To each their own gremlin …

*     *     *     *     *

Often, when organizations lose altitude, culture gremlins lurk.  The gremlins are why it is challenging to maintain altitude, or, as in the quote above, to be a challenger twice.

Let’s unpack that quote a bit.

To be a challenger once, it is enough to challenge the orthodoxies of the incumbents.

Entrepreneurial organizations challenge the orthodoxies of the marketplace to drive its growth and success.  A new and different business model (Dell); an innovative approach to the market (Netflix); an elegant product/service design (Apple); you have others in mind as well.

In all of them, the challenge is outward-directed.  Toward the incumbents.

To be a challenger twice, a firm must be capable of challenging its own orthodoxies.

In other words, to sustain our success and effectiveness in the face of competition and/or market change, we need to rethink what we believe and how we work.

But why?

Because our success means we’re now the incumbents.  As an incumbent, facing a formidable challenger is only a matter time.  Time drives change, and change challenges everything and everybody.

Organizational success embeds policies and practices and cultural norms.  They are like seat belts giving comfortable hugs.  Everyone is enjoying the ride.

Until the policies start to restrict the freedom to adapt to changes in the marketplace.  Until the practices become unwieldy and inefficient when scaled up to handle the growth.  Until the cultural norms become orthodoxies that start feeling less like a hug and more like a choke hold.

And you start to feel the steepness of the descent in the pit of your stomach.

*     *     *     *     *

Organizational success incubates culture gremlins.

Orthodoxy.

Sustaining success requires the capability of challenging those orthodoxies.  Our own orthodoxies.

Our gremlins.

Without that capability … well, you really don’t want to see the gremlins of culture out on your organizational wings when you’re at 30,000 feet but quickly losing altitude.

(And if you do, I hope you have an OD guy as your wing man.  OD guys go after gremlins of culture with a vengeance.)

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