Organizations with toxic cultures like Uber’s can win over the short term. But they can’t respond to change over time. Organizations that truly value collaboration and encourage employees to engage in healthy conflict like India’s Mu Sigma are better at seeing, communicating and acting on changes. This is Darwinian. Responsiveness to change is the most important determinant of survivability.

Uber is in trouble and probably not addressing the root cause of their issues. Without going back over the gory details, some recent headlines:

• Uber embodies the toxicity of a start up culture

• Reports: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Advised Staff on Sex With Colleagues

• Uber Fires 20 Amid Investigation Into Workplace Culture

They need to change. In a bid to do what Catherine Shu describes as “heal its fractured company culture” they’ve brought in Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei as SVP of Leadership and Strategy with her model of clarity  communication  consistency.

Clarity. One of the first things Frei is trying to at Uber is get everyone on the same page. She started by getting aligned with CEO Travis Kalanick and HR head Liane Hornsey. Then she designed and rolled out a program for Uber’s 3,000 managers to teach them to lead in an Uber context.

Communication. In a digital world there is no daylight between internal and external communication. Confidential internal memos show up in the press and many employees learn about what’s happening in their organization from outside sources. This is why Frei hired Apple’s Bozoma Saint John as “Chief Brand Officer” to corral external and internal communication.

Consistency. The real battle will be what Frei describes as rooting out cultural breaks. It’s fine to say that culture takes over when the CEO leaves the room. But that only works if the CEO, leadership team and everyone consistently practice what they believe.

Culture is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage. A bad culture like Enron’s or Volkswagen’s implodes on itself over time. A strong, BRAVE culture is the key to an organization’s ability to survive and thrive.

Dhiraj Rajaram gets this. He’s built his big data analytics and decision sciences company, Mu Sigma, into India’s first profitable unicorn. The key has been mastering the art of collaboration and encouraging employees to engage in healthy conflict and give direct honest feedback to everyone, even their superiors.

Dhiraj is passionate about staying ahead of change. As he puts it,

The nature of change in today’s world dictates that the facts of today will become the anti-facts of tomorrow.

He believes that change is happening so fast that they need to treat facts as fleeting entities here for a moment and then supplanted by a new reality almost instantly.

This plays out in three core premises:

• Learning over knowing. Darwin would love this. It’s not about what you’re good at and what you know. It’s about how fast you can learn and adapt.

• Extreme experimentation over expertise. This is why healthy conflict is so important. You have to have an attitude of “I don’t know if that will work. Let’s try it.”

• New IP over old IP. This translates to diversity of ideas from each of the three types of leaders the world needs most.

Dhiraj knows that different cultures work for different organizations. He’s purposefully built a culture to encourage contribution and commitment.


Can Uber Adapt?

It’s not clear that Uber can move its culture to anything like Mu Sigma’s fast enough to survive over the long term. SOL Marketing branding expert Deb Gabor suggests that Uber’s only viable options are to hire a new CEO and try to repair the brand or find a larger corporation to absorb Uber’s valuable infrastructure. As she told me,

Healthy brands are consistent, aligned with customer values and deliver on a promise 360 degrees around the brand with every single touch point: customers, employees, community, stockholders. With this Toxic CEO at the core of this very very sick corporate culture, this frat-boy culture, they cannot recover.

Some say culture change starts with attitude change. Some say it starts with behavior change. In either case, Uber needs to change much more than its window dressing or perish.