Organisational Culture by Conscious Design

Our Project’s and Change Management consultant, Ben Thompson recently followed a great blogger on LinkedIn – Stephanie Owen. Most definitely worth a follow, this is some of her recent work around one of the most popular words thrown around the workplace today…CULTURE

‘Culture’ has become the catch-all term that is the encapsulation of everything that’s right about an organisation. Or if something goes wrong, something must also be wrong about the culture. If change is too difficult to bring in, or if there is wrongdoing in an organisation, culture must be the culprit. A friend recently joined an award-winning niche professional services firm, from one of its bigger and better known competitors. The reason for his switch? Culture.

An enormous amount has been written about the importance of culture, lots about changing it, some about measuring it, but little about how you might go about defining or designing an organisation’s culture. So when a colleague recently asked for advice on how a fast-growing startup might go about shaping its culture, it prompted me to reflect, share, and invite discussion.

The starting point for designing or defining culture is to remember that culture has been with us for as long as humans have lived in groups. It is the sum total of the behaviours that the leaders (and members) of the organisation find acceptable and unacceptable, in the context of the identity, values, and aspirations of the organisation.


‘Culture has been with us for as long as humans have lived in groups.’


Organisational cultures often develop initially based on the values and aspirations of their founders or perhaps one of the leaders. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s legendary frugality, Steve Job’s obsession with design and user experience, Richard Branson’s fun and risk-embracing personality – these founders’ personality traits and values form the basis of their organisations’ core values. Over time, these values and behaviours are rewarded (or condoned) by leaders, and become ‘culture’. In this light, it is not surprising that Uber’s board and investors recently decided that co-founder CEO Travis Kalanick and a core group of executives needed to be removed in order to change the culture, amid allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, theft of trade secrets and misleading government regulators.

So, the questions to ask if you were to consciously try to design an organisational culture, would include these:

  1. Who are we – what is our DNA/essence
  2. What is our place in the world, what do we believe about ourselves?
  3. What values do we collectively hold?
  4. What behaviours do we find acceptable or not – with each other? with people outside our organisation?
  5. How do we express our culture – through our office, dress code?
  6. What is our brand – in other words: what is our promise to our customers and staff, and other community stakeholders?

These are, of course, deep and searching questions. Answering them will take time and focused reflection that is difficult to accomplish in today’s fast-paced distraction-ridden world.

How would you arrive at answers to these deep and searching questions, especially if you, as founder or leader, would like to involve others in the journey so as to create buy-in and alignment?

Depending on your starting point, I believe there are three main ways to get answers to the searching questions required to define your desired culture.

      1. Informal chats – if you have an enquiring mindset, and are good at asking questions, you might be able to arrive at a collective view of culture through a series of informal chats with key people about the questions above. This method would be successful if you have already built trust in your organisation and have a culture of genuine two-way dialogue. Of course, this might also take time, depending on the size of the organisation.
      2. Facilitated conversations – a good coach (for small groups up to 4-5) or a facilitator (for larger groups of maybe up to 20, depending on the facilitator) can draw out perspectives and act as a sounding board. The main advantage is that it is easier to think aloud with an impartial listener, and a skilled facilitator can also integrate different viewpoints into coherent statements.
      3. Experiential, co-design workshops – this approach is ideal to get moderately sized groups (eg 20-150) involved concurrently in an immersive, experiential environment that collaboratively design the desired culture. Many people would consider it difficult to impossible to get larger groups (say, around 150) in an interactive workshop. However, there are specialised methodologies available that can achieve this. The advantage of getting large groups like this involved is that diverse perspectives and roles can be represented, and you save a tremendous amount of time in ‘implementation’ because you have already involved large numbers of people. Depending on the size of your organisation, the 150+ people may be your entire organisation, or you end up with some 150 change agents at the end of the exercise.

    No matter what the chosen approach is, the important thing to remember is that the design must also specify how the desired culture will be brought to life: do our performance management systems and processes reinforce that culture? are there monetary and non-monetary rewards for living the desired culture? how might we celebrate those who are aligned? how might we censure (or remove) those who are not? how might we express our culture through our internal and external communications? how might we make it easy (preferably automatic) for people to act in accordance with our desired culture?


    ‘Culture is like raising a plant: if you give it the right conditions, fertilise, water and weed, the plant will thrive.’


    You can’t make culture ‘happen’ directly, the way you might create an app or build a house. It is more like raising a plant: if you give it the right conditions, fertilise, water and weed, the plant will thrive. But there is a world of difference between a patch of soil overrun by weeds and a cultivated garden. The latter can only emerge when there has been conscious design and hard work. In a similar way, conscious design and focus on creating the right incentives, structures and processes that support and reinforce the right behaviours (while discouraging undesirable behaviours), will help the desired culture emerge. Combine this with daily reinforcement of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviours, an organisation can build a winning culture, one that can inspire staff and attract customers when internal and external brands align.

Read more from Stephanie here