Fish Can’t See Water: A book review by Bob Morris

Fish Can'tFish Can’t See Water: How National Culture Can Make or Break Your Corporate Strategy
Kai Hammerich and Richard D Lewis
John Wiley & Sons (2013)

How and why “deep and often invisible natural programming” can affect the strategy execution of an organization

Kai Hammerich and Richard Lewis have selected and rigorously explored a subject of great interest to me: the dynamics of interaction between and among cultural values that are sometimes incompatible or at least resistant to compromise, accommodation, and consensus. Cultural differences almost inevitably result in cultural confrontations. They help to explain why many (if not most) mergers and acquisitions either fail or fall far short of original expectations. They also help to explain civil wars, tribal feuds, and dysfunctional families.

In this volume, Hammerich and Lewis focus on these specific subjects and issues:

o How values, beliefs, and assumptions are embedded in an organization by its founder(s) and leaders

o The “Lewis Model” that triangulates national cultures (i.e. linear-active, multi-active, and reactive national)

o The defining traits of key nations (e.g. France, Italy, Great Britain, and USA)

o The “Cultural Dynamics Model” ® and the concept of a cultural dynamic

o Lifecycle periods (e.g. organizational, such as those discussed by Ichak Adizes in Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to Do About It)

o The growth period during which companies expand the nature and extent of their operations

o The maturity period with its phases of efficiency, scale, and in some instances consolidation

o “Whither the West” in terms of the impact of what Tom Friedman characterizes as a “flat world” has on western nations as they compete globally

o An existential crisis whose details are best revealed within the narrative, in context

How can business leaders “see the water that surrounds them,” water that may be red with ferocious competition, white with uncertainty, or blue (as W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne suggest) with opportunity? Hammerich and Lewis recommend a five-step framework:

1. Determine the main dimensions of the [given] company’s strategy and cultural alignment using the Cultural Dynamics Model ®
2. Classify the national type that reflects the embedded national values using the Lewis model
3. Identify where the company is in its lifecycle
4. Establish how national culture may have enabled and/or derailed success at the most recent transformation point and could impact the organization at the next
5. Diagnose signs of a potential crisis that could accentuate a cultural dynamic and create a life-threatening situation for the company

Hammerich and Lewis explain how to prepare for, implement, and then sustain — rather than complete — a process of constant adjustment, one prescribed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” It was true then and is even truer now when change is the only constant and it occurs faster and with greater impact than at any prior time that I can recall.

Confident that the world will become multicultural but one in which differences are respected and diversity is appreciated. Kai Hammerich and Richard Lewis conclude, “Organizational culture is the result of all the decisions made and actions taken in an organization over time. Culture is behaviour and behaviour defines culture. Culture is man-made and therefore can be directed by man. Thus, whichever direction the world takes, we can only point the finger in one direction — toward ourselves. And herein lies our biggest opportunity!”

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