Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture in a Bureaucratic World

Do you have to be an entrepreneur to build an entrepreneurial culture?

There is no doubt that we live in a bureaucratic world. It is a structured world,  often frustratingly so,  defined by rules, process and procedures. And while the world seems to embrace bureaucracy, there are many — maybe just like you — who chafe under its constrictions and yearn for a more enterprising way of corporate life.

The generally accepted antidote for bureaucracy is what is called an “entrepreneurial culture,” and everyone wistfully talks about the value of building this type of culture. But behind the talk lies a very real trap: Those who are smothered in a large bureaucratic organization feel powerless to create an entrepreneurial culture.

bureaucracyWhen you’re mired in the bureaucratic trenches it’s difficult to believe you are in a position or have the power to fight bureaucracy by building an entrepreneurial culture. Why? Because many are handcuffed by the mistaken belief that being an entrepreneur is a prerequisite for creating an entrepreneurial culture. It is as though our notions of being an entrepreneur and crafting an entrepreneurial culture are conjoined as steadfastly as Siamese twins; that you can’t have one without the other.

That restrictive mindset prevents many from even attempting to build an entrepreneurial culture. They think that, since they can never be an entrepreneur, they give-up and give-in to bureaucracy; they’re convinced that creating an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world is nothing more than a pipe dream.

That is a false conclusion. It is not only possible, but also fairly easy to build an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world, even for those who are not entrepreneurs.

The right road to bureaucratic freedom is to first, rid yourself of the belief that the attributes essential to being a successful entrepreneur are the same characteristics that form the basis of an entrepreneurial culture. That’s not the case; they can be very different.

For example, while intuitively it seems likely that an organization led by en entrepreneur will have an entrepreneurial culture, the reality is that more times than not, this is not the case. The seldom-acknowledged truth is that while the culture of an organization led by a strong entrepreneur may not be bureaucratic, it is apt to be more autocratic than entrepreneurial.

Experience has taught me that what really constrains the creation of an entrepreneurial culture – especially in large organizations – is a matter of semantics. For lack of a better term, we have fallen into the trap of identifying a culture that offers members of the organization some of the benefits of being an entrepreneur – doing the job for their own benefit – as an “entrepreneurial culture,” but this creates more confusion than understanding. It would be better to let the concept of “entrepreneur” stand on its own and think about creating a “culture” that also stands on its own.

If we can just clear our minds of the accepted idea of what an “entrepreneurial culture” is supposed to be and instead, think in terms of an “open culture,” it will enable us to look at culture building from a completely different perspective. And while we are at it, let’s also cheat on the traditional rule that says only those at the top of an organization can determine its culture.

Over and over again I have had people say to me, “I am just a small cog in a large bureaucratic organization. How can I bring about cultural change?” The answer is to ignore the larger bureaucratic culture and think of creating a distinct culture within your span of control, such as a team leader, department head or division leader. Remember that culture for the group is defined by the style of the leader at any level.

So if we are willing to open our minds and suspend the rules that inhibit the creation of an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world by working to build an “open culture,” what would it look like? How would it behave?

  • It would be a culture with a strict adherence to a core set of values.
  • The culture would constantly focus on clearly defined objectives along with continuous support for members of the group and free flowing transparent communication.
  • It would be imbued with a sense of urgency as a operating lifestyle.
  • Stress accountability where risk is clearly encouraged and accomplishment rewarded.
  • When the group is successful, all of those within the group share in the sense of ownership, participation and rewards for the success achieved.

There is nothing in this concept of an “open culture” that can’t be adopted by any leader, at any level in any size organization – even the most bureaucratic. Don’t believe it? Are you going to suggest that within your span of control you can’t have a core set of values? That you can’t clearly define the objectives of the group you lead? That you are not allowed to have constant communication with members of your group? That just because you are not an entrepreneur, you can’t create a sense of urgency among those you supervise? The truth is that you don’t have to be an entrepreneur or CEO of a company in order to build an “open culture” in your area of leadership and control.

A Real-Life Example

My first job in corporate America was as second vice president of marketing support for a large, bureaucratic insurance company. Admittedly I was naive to corporate politics and bureaucracy and certainly was not an entrepreneur, but I stumbled onto the idea of creating a “culture within a culture.” In dealing with those in the marketing support department my objective was to build a culture that some might see as “entrepreneurial,” but I only thought of it as being “open.” It may have been different from the general culture of the company, but because this was within my province of control, I had the power to implement it. (As a symbol of rejecting the overall bureaucratic culture of the company, I even moved from my private executive office to a desk in the open area with members of the department.)

My approach was to create a common goal and mission for the department; establish a sense of “we” by forming parallel interests with all members of the department. I worked hard to offer consistent transparent communication, encourage risk taking and to share the success of the department with everyone. It was not long before the marketing support department was being recognized as one of the most efficient and effective in the company.

This success even motivated other department heads to begin making an effort to duplicate our “culture” in their departments. As a result, the culture of the company began to change from the bottom-up. This experience in culture building taught me a great lesson and propelled my career forward. The point here is that despite being in a relatively low-level position in a very large bureaucratic company, it is possible within your span of control – with the right attitude and approach – to build an “open culture.”

And the Moral of the Story …

While virtually everyone sings the praises of an entrepreneurial culture, there is also virtually universal belief that only an entrepreneur can create an entrepreneurial culture. It is this misunderstanding that leads to the conclusion that it is not possible to create an entrepreneurial culture in a bureaucratic world. If we continue to cling to the traditional beliefs of culture building, then the bureaucratic world will always win. But if we are willing to open our minds to what the culture is really all about, instead of what it is called, then it is possible to build an “open culture” in a bureaucratic world. And those who are willing to adopt this approach by implementing the concepts of an open culture will ultimately achieve success and recognition that will be the envy of any entrepreneur.


4 responses to “Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture in a Bureaucratic World

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