Get a Fresh Perspective on Your Organization’s Culture: A (Mostly) Do-It-Yourself Approach

By Karen Utgoff

When was the last time you took a systematic look at your organization’s culture? Many owners and leaders of small-to-medium sized businesses could answer this question with one word: “Never.” Unfortunately, culture is often neglected when leaders size up their organizations even when its importance is recognized because it is difficult to measure:

  • Unlike cash flow, leads generated, cost of goods sold, defect rates, absenteeism, or other company/industry empirical measures, culture cannot be assessed strictly in terms of numbers.
  • Culture — good or bad — is so much a part of an organization’s day-to-day “normal” it can be difficult just to recognize its influences, much as individuals may be blind to their own good or bad behavior patterns.
  • Culture is very much in the eyes of its many beholders — employees, customers, suppliers, as well as the management team. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is important to consider each for their perspectives and bring the necessary objectivity to the process.
  • Convincing yourself (and staff) of its importance to find the time to do this type of assessment can be very difficult in the midst of day-to-day demands.

Nevertheless taking a fresh look at your organization’s culture is critical; while the work is difficult, the payoff could be substantial. In many ways, an organization’s culture is at the core of its ability to respond effectively to immediate difficulties as well as meet long-term challenges and seize opportunities. Culture significantly influences an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees and, of course, its customer experience.

Don’t let the desire for perfection derail getting started. Taking initial steps will allow you to build a foundation for future improvements. Here is an approach that might help you begin.

Use a general framework as a starting point. While it is tempting to start by framing your assessment around the particulars of your organization, this could introduce assumptions about your culture that skew results or interfere with insights. Instead, start with a one-size-fits-all structure to assure a fresh perspective that will help you develop an objective, inclusive view of your culture.

While there are many frameworks out there, I like the one provided in John Coleman’s “Six Components of a Great Corporate Culture” from the HBR Blog Network. This article breaks culture into more manageable pieces:

  • Vision (and/or mission)
  • Values
  • Practices
  • People
  • Narrative*
  • Place*

It’s worth noting that these are components of both great and problematic cultures; the difference being that in great cultures the elements work together to create a highly productive, effective organization.

Go beyond your talk to get at your walk. Because culture depends much more upon what an organization does than what it says, look for evidence of culture in action. Use facts to support your observations or help you to see more clearly.

Use the framework to describe your organization’s culture from your (the CEO/owner’s) perspective. Record your view of each aspect of your organization’s culture. Limit yourself to a single page that succinctly covers the six components rather than a detailed description. Once this summary is complete, if you feel the need for more information add backup pages to support the summary page. For example in the section on Narrative you may want to mention the story about when you and everyone else worked late into the night to help a customer in a crisis. This could be listed as “How we went above and beyond for XYZ Co. when they needed our help,” while backup information could include highlights of your team’s efforts and XYZ’s thank you letter.

Use the framework to see your organization’s culture from many perspectives. Eventually you may want use the template to gather the perspectives of employees, customers and others who have experience with your organization. To get started, focus on employees from the front lines to the management team. Provide a copy of the template and Coleman’s blog.  Ask each one to describe your organization’s culture as he or she sees it. Encourage backup notes to support observations on the main sheet. Anonymous returns encourage frankness, but you will not be able to follow up for more detail. Often a third party is engaged to gather and consolidate returns to help overcome this barrier.

Compare and consolidate perspectives to see with fresh eyes. As you accumulate perspectives from various individuals throughout your organization and beyond, look for points of agreement and divergence. Be mentally prepared for both delightful and disappointing discoveries. For example, you may find that employees are quietly taking the initiative to realize the mission through their day-to-day actions, or that employees are only partially aware of the organization’s values. You may also find that there are some positive aspects of your culture that you, as the leader, rarely or never see but want to encourage. In any case, your mandate is to see your culture through fresh eyes rather than to act immediately on the details.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your culture, it will become easier to find ways to strengthen and nurture its positive aspects. For example, if employees are unaware of the organization’s values, you may realize that a values statement needs to be distributed to everyone, that values need to be integrated into performance evaluations, or that you will seek opportunities to create new narratives by recognizing employees whose actions exemplify organizational values.

Improve your ability to analyze and assess organizational culture by observing others. The steps above are just a starting point. One of the joys of my work is that I am regularly exposed to a wide range of organizations. In some it’s clear that talk and walk have diverged, while in others employees are remarkably in sync. There is a lot to learn from both. To strengthen your ability to nurture the culture in your organization, try applying the framework to others. Does your supplier tell you that its people are innovative problem solvers but your experiences say otherwise?

Include organizational culture as a regular part of management review. Remember that the steps above are a beginning not the end. Along with your margins, customer-base and employees’ technical capabilities, a healthy organizational culture is an important part of your business’ strength. In addition to its internal value, it plays directly into your reputation, brand, and competitiveness. To create, nurture and sustain culture effectively, make time to assess it systematically as part of routine, ongoing management and leadership efforts.

* For more on Narrative and Place, see my post on “Using narrative and place to nurture small business culture” in Succeeding in Small Business.

© Copyright 2014 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

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