Culture is best defined as “How we do things around here.” It’s the link between vision, mindset and behaviour. It’s the glue that connects what we declare we are to how we adjust our thinking and doing. Culture is the visible manifestation of invisible convictions and commitments. Culture is the explicit expression of the way your team agrees you will make your vision a reality.
Culture is what people see.
Culture is what people feel.
Culture is what people sense.
Culture is what people explain to their friends about your organisation.
Culture is powerful. Cultural anthropologist Michael Henderson says culture is 8x more powerful than strategy. A multiplier effect takes place when you have your culture – the ‘way we do things around here’ clearly defined in your organisation.
Culture is discovered – it is already IN your organisation and needs to be dug up and given life through language.
Culture is also created – it requires discipline and courage to define who you want to be – write it down and stick to it in your behaviours.
Below is what culture looks like when you combine these two approaches.
#1. No Creation and No Discovery. An unintentional culture.
Sadly, this is true of many organisations, not for profits, sporting teams and churches. No work at all has gone into defining ‘how we do things around here’ and as a consequence the proverbial ship without a rudder is how this organisation functions. Behaviours of all sorts are tolerated, standards are inconsistent and accountability is difficult to both expect and inspect.
An unintentional culture doesn’t know ‘how it does things around here’. It hasn’t defined who it wants to be and can’t articulate the key behaviours that they will celebrate and champion. It’s going somewhere but no-one has stopped to check if the current direction is leading to the right destination.
#2. Lots of Creation but little Discovery. A Forced Culture.
Ever visited a friend and walked into their home where not only does everything has its place everything is in its place. And the thought of moving it out of place creates expressions of horror from your host? A bit extreme perhaps but when an environment that is supposed to be lived in, warm and enjoyed looks forced and contrived there is an air of designating about it. It’s hard to trust a ‘forced environment’. It’s even harder to relax in one and almost impossible to flourish.
A culture that is entirely created leaves no room for history, mystery or story. A created culture can easily appear contrived, sterile and lifeless. It looks great on the wall; inspiring in the posters and on the brochures; but it has missed entirely the life, vibrancy and energy that you want from a life-giving culture.
When you leave no room for mystery – no room for story; no room for the dance of life and leadership – you have more of a doctor’s clinic than an artist’s studio. Leave room for colour and noise when it comes to defining your culture.
#3. Lots of Discovery and Little Creation. An Imagined Culture.
Even writing this there is a tension. At one end of the Imagined Culture there is a reasonable argument that says the organic style of culture creation is both the most human and the most honouring to an organisation. Reasonable point. Certainly if there was going to be something overlooked then it would be in this stage. Failing to see the beauty, the wonder, the delight ALREADY in the organisation is an all too regular occurrence for leaders who are bent on making their mark and proving their point. Taking the time to see the intimate brilliance and find words for it is an art form that both honours the purpose of the organisation and the passion of its people.
I’d propose a ‘both and’ approach here. Listen deeply to what is already in the organisation and evaluate courageously who you need to be to accomplish your mission. When you parent children, you work so very hard to identify their natural talents and passions, and you resource them as best as you can. All the while setting boundaries, instilling values and creating environments where they can flourish.
It’s both; find the natural brilliance and create an environment where it can flourish. Too much discovery leaves little room for important and courageous boundaries that will serve the health, growth and multiplication of the organisation.
#4. Lots of Discovery and Lots of Creation. An Inspired Culture.
The dream for any leader is to find that sweet spot – where just enough creation and just enough discovery have taken place to leverage the best of both worlds.
Discovery allows the innate, natural brilliance of the organisation to shine.
Creation positions you to be courageous and disciplined in mission achievement.
When you combine the two you have an inspired culture. A combination of sweet and sour. Smooth and rough. Like an expert chef you have just enough balance of the ingredients for each experience to be savoured and enjoyed.
An inspired culture takes time. It takes work and dedication to bring it about. It requires humility and responsiveness. It particularly requires the following five steps.
- To listen.
- To act.
- To feel.
- To think, and
- To release.
These five stages that activate the culture development process can be understood like this:
Listen. There is a story of your tribe.
Hemingway said “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” The whole journey of culture starts with listening. Listen to individuals; listen to groups; listen to critics; listen to raving fans. Just listen. Find the story; the dream; the passionate future and become a good steward of that.
Act. Do something that kick-starts the process.
Culture requires purposeful action. Culture requires purposeful action in the context of clear direction. Do something that mobilises and energises the people, process and situation. Ask challenging questions. Invite people to step up; to make greater sacrifices’ to be FOR the shared future more than ever before. Do something and adjust. Doing nothing simply cannot be accepted.
Feel. What is the heart and soul of your organisation?
This is more intuitive, more caught than taught. More felt than explained. What really is the “vibe” you want? What is the vibe that is present already? How does it feel to participate and interact with you and your people? What do you want it to be? People get a sense of what a group is like and quickly make up their mind as to whether they want to be part of it or not. Be intentional about the feel AND the feeling you want people to have when they are part of your tribe.
Think. What do you need to be and do to accomplish the mission?
This is the mental output that’s required to help forge and language – the vision – of your tribe. It takes work, it takes time and it takes meetings. When you find the right way to SAY your culture it quickens the uptake and deepens the ownership. Words are the custodians of the oral tradition. Stories, phrases, statements. They sit in the folklore of tribes and people groups. Do the work on your own and do the work with your team to get clarity on the “language of your culture”
Release. Clearly communicate what your culture is and isn’t.
Culture is as much what you are about as it is what you are NOT about. When you ‘go live’ on your culture it’s just as important to be explicit about what your culture is not. Then you know what to protect and guard against as well as deepen and champion.
Culture is about stating the things you believe are important and avoiding the things that aren’t. Going live and letting culture play out in reality gives you your best chance to measure how much ownership there is and what kind of adjustments need to be made.
It’s a delicate art to uncover and discover culture. It’s also worth it. When you discover your culture and spend time creating and crafting it, you give your tribe the best chance at saying, owning and truly being what you believe you are.
How have you made culture a reality where you are leading? I’d love you to share your thoughts here.