Coffee, shoes, and culture

August 31, 2007

Over the past several months a number of my client projects have had me thinking a lot about high performance (organizational) and culture. It is quite impressive the level of thought, debate, and effort organizations, both private and public, spend on defining what a high performing organization is for their context and how to best communicate their ideal definition to inspire employees to align their behaviors accordingly. What about monitoring an organization’s current culture? We have many hard measures of performance but the link to culture is more complex. Can we learn from companies well known for their performance and strong cultures?

I am writing this post during a flight from Toronto to Vancouver and watched a show called CEO Exchange on my personal enRoute entertainment screen. The episode I watched had both the President of Nordsrom and CEO of Starbucks . Much of the discussion was on culture and it was an interesting contrast – one leader earned the right to lead a family-founded business that is now a publicly held company and the other came in from the outside. One business had a deep history with several decades of being in business and the other was a very successful startup with a relatively short history. Both evolved strong cultures in different time periods and have earned respect from the business community at large with regards to their success. Besides noting these contrasts I want to highlight a few notes that I took as I watched the CEO Exchange:


  • They do not have mission or value statements. Blake Nordstrom said something like “after 50 years we simply live them”
  • The roots of the company, namely as a shoe retailer, live on in stories conveyed to new employees and reinforced in current employees. This serves as a model for customer service for the primary reason that selling shoes requires more customer interaction than other products.
  • They strive to promote from within


  • Jim Donald starts every morning by calling 5 or more stores to talk with their partners (Starbucks refers to employees as partners)
  • Recently they spent more $s in a year (I think that was the time frame) on partner health benefits than on coffee beans
  • Invest a lot in mentoring processes to help new partners (employees) acquire the Starbuck culture. If new partners have a hard time adopting the culture then they usually do not last under the pressure from other partners (self selection weeds them out).

Now what was interesting was that both leaders answered many questions with short anecdotes and stories. I suspect that if they use this approach with their employees (or partners with Starbucks) that this proves to be an effective way of conveying complex cultural concepts. The other thing both mentioned is the time they spent interacting with their front line workers and customers and I am quite confident that many if not most of their discussions are predominantly stories about both employee and customer experiences. So I suspect (this is my hypothesis) that both of these leaders keep a sensitive ear to the stories that are active within their organizations and seek to constantly reinforce their culture with close contact and dialogue with their employee base. Both spoke of the time to invest in their employees (Nordstrom in the sense that they strive to create both positive employee and customer experiences – Starbucks with their health benefits and mentoring programs) which helps considerably with recruiting, retention, and sustaining their cultures.

Now the link I’d like to make with Cognitive Edge is that of how to enhance the ability of an organization even like Nordstrom or Starbucks to even more effectively stimulate and sustain a positive evolution of their culture and drive higher performance. Even though I believe both leaders are doing a great job of connecting to their customer and employee stories and making sense of the patterns to inform how they continually reinforce a culture which for them yields a high performing organization, they are still vulnerable to cognitive bias. So to enhance any organizations ability to build a high performing organization through creating a culture that can deliver high performance, being able to collect and make sense of large volumes of stories is key. And to minimize cognitive bias one can rely on abstract representations (landscapes to reference back to my post of yesterday) from multiple perspectives. The abstract representations prevent us from arriving at conclusions too quickly when we look at raw stories (or only rely on discussions and conversations) and give us an opportunity to see things we may not normally see. Early weak signals to threats and opportunities can be identified.

Coming back to high performance and culture I think that stories and anecdotes that can be stored and viewed through abstract visual representations offer companies the ability to benchmark their cultures and to monitor for positive and negative shifts. In this way an organization can harness the collective behaviors and norms of their employees (their culture) to drive for higher performance. And remember if Starbucks can do it in a relatively short time without these tools and enhancements then the ability is there to speed up evolution even more with narrative tools, deliberate effort, and understanding of complexity.

By Michael Cheveldave

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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