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LONGITUDES

The X factor of great corporate cultures

Highway aerial with streets making the letter X

Dictionaries define quiddity as “the inherent nature or essence of someone or something.” In our consulting practice, we’ve found quiddity a useful concept in representing an organization’s founding history and principles that align and anchor it internally while also serving as a powerful marketplace differentiator.

If culture is “the way we do things around here,” quiddity is “why we do things the way we do.” Quiddity serves as a stable foundation for culture, which can evolve in positive ways but also drift dangerously off course. That’s particularly critical in organizations where culture is a linchpin of success.

When an organization understands, communicates and celebrates its quiddity, it’s far better able to drive culture and all that culture impacts — from recruitment and training to branding, reputation and beyond.

As the nucleus of values shaping organizational culture and metaphorically bringing it to life, quiddity then activates the culture’s self-reinforcing loop in which the celebrations of its history, traditions and successes further attract and reinforce the bond with its customers, partners and employees.

“Quiddity serves as a stable foundation for culture, which can evolve in positive ways but also drift dangerously off course.”

A long-lasting culture

Our work centers on Reputation-Driven Organizations (RDOs), firms that typically lack readily comparable products, or products difficult to evaluate until after delivery.

Examples include large medical centers, law and accounting firms, engineering and construction companies and colleges and universities. For such organizations, reputation can account for a quarter or more of market value, so when it goes astray or is threatened, the consequences can be significant.

One aircraft manufacturing story underscores this point. Lockheed Advanced Engineering, known as the Skunk Works and initially led by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, developed a quiddity based on Johnson’s strong personality, beliefs and his famed “14 Principles.”

The company hired only the very best engineers and technicians, avoided unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork, insisted on staff reporting to top management to minimize politics and turf issues and demanded total employee commitment to near impossible challenges.

The culture Johnson created resulted in delivering the U.S. Air Force’s first jet fighter in under six months; building the SR-71, which in 1976 set the still-standing speed record for manned, air-breathing aircraft; and developing the first stealth airplane, the Lockheed F-117, first publicly debuted in 1988.

The Skunk Works can-do attitude of meeting demanding and complex objectives, on time and ostensibly within budget parameters, exemplifies a corporate culture that continues to thrive well beyond Johnson’s tenure.

“The value of quiddity is that it serves to anchor the institutional culture by maintaining a link to the organization’s roots and the shared narrative that unites internal and external constituents.”

Tell your story

The value of quiddity — when made known and celebrated — is that it serves to anchor the institutional culture by maintaining a link to the organization’s roots and the shared narrative that unites internal and external constituents.

For Lockheed’s Skunk Works, shared quiddity is what draws extraordinary contributions from its employees and keeps clients coming to them.

Derived from the firm’s history — its founders, its initial vision and practices, its innovations, its particular approach to or way of doing business — quiddity can also arise from more recent developments. For example, Apple’s resurgence after Steve Jobs returned as CEO has become an essential part of its story.

More commonly seen in retail organizations, quiddity may also be developed from a manufactured image (ultimately expressed in a brand) that has little or nothing to do with the organization’s actual founding or history.

Bringing quiddity to the fore typically takes the form of a narrative or backstory, a celebration of founding principles, consequent achievements and milestones. The backstory is first and foremost an internal narrative because it serves as the source of meaning with which employees can identify and represents an entity they can belong to with pride.

For reputation-driven organizations, identity and belonging are critically important; unlike in many other kinds of organizations, their employees are often proxies for the product even though there may be actual deliverables — a medical procedure, financial plan or college lecture, for example.

“To ensure that culture remains anchored and aligned, it’s vitally important to articulate, celebrate and communicate quiddity.”

The point for executive leadership

It’s this second element of the quiddity backstory — its dissemination to clients, customers and the public — that helps cement the three-way bond between organization, internal constituents and external constituents, a bond that fuels and sustains reputation.

Consumer goods firms such as Nike, Apple and Patagonia not only have unique quiddities but learned how to maximize their value in internal and external storytelling.

The point for executive leadership is simple: Even though most reputation-driven organizations may never require the continuous mass market advertising and public relations exhibited by consumer goods firms or retailers, perceptions of a positive culture build their reputations.

To ensure that culture remains anchored and aligned, it’s vitally important to articulate, celebrate and communicate quiddity.

Republished with permission, this article first appeared on Harvard Business Review.

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