What do you think this describes?

“a set of basic tacit assumptions about how the world is and ought to be that is shared by a set of people and determines their perceptions, thoughts, feelings and, to some degree, their overt behavior.”

If you guessed “organizational culture,” move to the head of the class. This is the definition offered by MIT Sloan School Professor Edgar Schein, often credited with coining the term, if not inventing the concept. Since Law Land excels, beyond reason, at celebrating each and every firm’s “culture,” perhaps it’s worth dwelling for a moment on a bit of the concept’s background and one of its most famous incarnations.

Thomas Watson Sr. arrived at the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company in New York in 1914 and found a “failure to integrate,” after a three-way merger three years earlier. “C-T-R” didn’t operate as a single organization, but consisted of highly segregated and distinct units in New York, Washington, DC, and Ohio. He set out to integrate it, and almost immediately grafted the motto, “THINK,” onto the firm. Here’s the Genesis story of that famously celebrated directive:

The THINK motto had come to him in 1911 at an early morning meeting of NCR sales managers. On this day, the managers didn’t have any good ideas about how to improve the business. Frustrated, Watson strode to the front of the room and gave them a tongue lashing. “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough,” he boomed. “Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business,” he told them. He decided on the spot that henceforth THINK would be the company’s slogan, and ordered a subordinate to post a placard with “THINK” printed on it in bold letters on the wall of the room the following morning.

At IBM, it became ubiquitous to the point of parody, but the business classic, In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr.) spotlighted IBM and characterized its culture as

a plethora of structural devices, systems, styles, and values, all reinforcing one another so that the companies are truly unusual in their ability to achieve extraordinary results through ordinary people

Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? You can find the AAA players in the major capital markets centers of the world, and some of them can even generate their own heat and light, but the rest of us just have to make do with what we have, and yet we still aspire to “extraordinary results.”

Yet so often we fall short; why?

I will nominate two culprits.

First, as Thomas Watson Sr. himself was eager to recognize, thinking is hard. It comes as an unnatural act to many of us, and it’s far more comfortable to grab the ready to hand common and received wisdom and keep our brains puttering in neutral. Plus, who can criticize you for that? Cliches and banalities are invoked, I daresay, 1,000 times for every one time someone gets called out for speaking platitudinously. This brings us to the second.

Thinking can lead you to odd places, places lightly populated and infrequently visited, forcing you to concentrate on gaining your bearings. In other words, you can feel a bit alone.

One of our favorite managing partners, rejecting the bromidic rallying cries of many of his peers to “develop business,” “grow revenue,” “build your book,” declares that there’s really only one way to win lasting clients: “Commit acts of the imagination.” This is not only hard (see above), it’s even worse: It requires courage and risks people thinking you oddly unconventional—and not in a good way.

Nevertheless, I recommend thinking, and even using your imagination. If you can pull it off, I’ll guarantee you one thing: You’ll stand out. Not a bad place to start.


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