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Building an organizational culture. And the pseudo concept of building a ‘Design Culture’.

Your personal core values define who you are, and a company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand. For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.

Tony Hsieh

What is a culture?

A culture is a set of underlying beliefs and values that drive actions and provide identity. The culture is not the values. It is not the action nor is it the identity. It is a combination of the three operating in tandem.

A culture is built from the inside out

The order in which the three aspects of culture arise is quite important. It starts with a set of shared values and beliefs. These shared values gives rise to consistent actions and the consistent actions work in developing the identity.

When a culture dies, it is again in the same order. First the values are forgotten. Next the actions become inconsistent. Finally the identity is lost. At which point you can say that the culture is finally dead.

This is why a dying culture is hard to spot. On the outside, it may seem like a very healthy cultural identity with actions that almost take on a ritualistic nature. However, on the inside, it may have lost all contact with the values. This gives rise to a hollow culture which will eventually die.

How does one build a culture from scratch?

To start building a culture from scratch, we need to first define the values our team or organization lives by. These should not be values that one just picks from a list of nice sounding words, but rather a set of principles you and your team believe in and are willing to stick your neck out to defend it.

The values should act as the filter and guiding light for all your actions. Each action is measured against the value and undertaken only when it is in alignment. When all your actions are aligned with your values they will all be consistent and hence the organization will set the right expectations and meet them almost 100% of the time.

The consistent actions will automatically create an identity for the organization. However for maximum impact, this identity should be reinforced through communication. This will bolster the identity and help in defining the culture.

Do values always define a culture?

A number of times, I see the core values defined as integrity, fairness and other nice sounding words that are supposed to evoke emotions. However do they really mean anything? For example, lets take these four exemplary values that were published by a Fortune 500 company:

  1. Communication
  2. Respect
  3. Integrity
  4. Excellence

In fact the company ranked number 7 on the Fortune 500 list in 2001. Had over $100 Billion in revenue and employed close to 30,000 people.  It does not exist today, however the name endures. For all the wrong reasons.

The company was Enron.

This is a case where, either the core values were not established or forgotten over time. And it still had an identity that was propped up by false actions and communication. It was a symbol of cultural decadence. And an example of what not to do.

So you see, just stating values or even chiselling them in marble in the main lobby does not mean you or the team lives by them. You need values that you actually live by.

How does one find these core values?

There are three ways you can discover these values. Let me outline them:

1. Look for stories that the team finds meaningful: Look back at stories within your organization that you may think of as peak experiences. Instances where there was a deep sense of fulfilment and satisfaction. These peak experiences are actual occasions where your action has been in alignment with the tacit values that drive you. When you have a number of such stories you will be able to determine patterns amongst them which will help define your values.

2. Look for stories of frustration: These are suppressed values. Did you feel angry, upset or frustrated. Were they a result of not doing things that you were supposed to do? What was it that was supposed to be done? These are also values that you should bring to the fore.

3. Document habit and rituals: Are there things that have become a habit that you enjoy as an organisation? Don’t focus on the habits but focus on the emotions. What about those habits is it that makes you happy? These are values that you need to focus on.

But do these values really help in establishing culture?

I’ve seen, at close quarters, two diametrically opposite cases. One is a successful one at Google and another a massive failure a Yahoo. Google succeeded because both Larry and Sergey believed in the same set of values and they very-very carefully curated the people they brought into the system. In fact till as late as 2015 Larry personally reviewed each hire at Google. This was not scalable, but it was possible because he had been doing it for 16 years and everyone understood what it meant to be ‘Googley’.

Marissa Mayer tried to replicate the Google culture at Yahoo. She did everything that felt right and worked at Google, but it failed spectacularly. The problem was she started with the actions and not the values. I’ve explained this failure in this answer on Quora.

https://www.quora.com/In-hindsight-was-Marissa-Mayer-a-good-or-bad-CEO/answer/Navneet-Nair

Moreover, establishing a new culture cannot be rushed.

Finally culture also matures with time. It follows what a path similar to Eriksonian Life Stages.I’ve describe this in detail in this article.

But how does one establish a ‘Design Culture’?

A design culture is NOT a culture. Here’s what Jordan Koschei define it as:

“Design culture is about rediscovering the human side of business.”

Jordan Koschei

He goes on that, in a true design culture, the whole team—including and especially non-designers—understands that design isa holistic and process-driven discipline that should be integrated throughout the organization.

However if you note, that is not truly a value. It is more of an action. People express design cultures by building design studios and running design thinking workshops. However those are not values that can be really used to build a culture. So next time someone talks about building a design culture at your workplace, start with building a real culture. Once you execute that culture well and bring in empathy, it will automatically transform into a design culture.

You can save the money on building a design studio and use it to fund something more important.

Something closer to your real values.

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