How To Actually Build A Culture - What I've Learned
Most companies I’ve come across are copycats. Their founders and executives look at how other companies do business and mimic the work environments (a composition of a company's habits, rituals, and practices) they like. In effect, they try to copy the culture of organizations they’ve seen before. On it's face, this is a fool's errand because most people haven't been in a high-functioning organization or team to begin with.
Even worse, it's reckless to mimic a different company's work environment, even if it is high-functioning. Why? Because those practices might not work well in a different business environment. Instead, the curators of a company’s culture – which are most often its founders and executives – should evolve their company’s work environment to fit the context in which they operate.
Animals and plants have been doing this for centuries. Camels and cacti, for example, have evolved to deal with water scarcity because they live in the desert. Bears have lots of fur and hibernate in the winter because that's what they need to survive in a colder climate. Animals and plants evolve to their habitat.
Companies, or even individual teams, should do what animals do – evolve their work environments to fit their habitat. Just like it doesn’t make sense for a camel to try to mimic a bear, it doesn’t make sense for a company in one “habitat” to mimic the culture of a company with a different business environment.
What's My Company or Team's Habitat?
I’ve found that the answers to two questions give reasonable insight to what a company’s “habitat” is and what that habitat requires of its work environment. After all, if you’re in a position to shape the culture of a company or team, it’s hard to do that without what your business environment requires. Here are the two questions:
- What do your customers reward – execution or innovation?
- What is the operating context in your market niche – simple & stable or complex & dynamic?
These two questions yield 4 basic “habitats” that each require a company or team’s work environment to emphasize different attributes - Coordination, Discipline, Motivation, or Learning:
How to Evolve A Culture
Correctly identifying your company or team’s habitat is one challenge, and evolving its culture to fit that habitat is quite another. I think the way to do this is choosing something – a moment in the day, an interaction, an artifact – and experimenting with it. Some colleagues and I put pen to paper on this concept in Work Environment Redesign.
I’d recommend experimenting with something small and mundane that’s done a certain way because “it’s the way we’ve always done it.” My favorite example is reimagining standing meetings. Here’s how the agenda of a standing team meeting could look for companies and teams in different habitats.
Lot's of little things can be evolved to fit a company's habitat - annual reports, branding, how customers are greeted, physical space, how recruits are interviewed, etc. Even if you only experiment with only one or two aspects of your work environment at a time, you’d be surprised how much your company or team’s culture can evolve even in a few months.
One more nuance I'd like to point out is that this model implies that a company's culture shouldn't be permanent. If a company's business environment changes, so should its work environment.
If you have stories or experiences to share with others about evolving your company or team’s work environment and culture – I’d love to hear about them in the comments (or a guest post)!