The Capstone of Culture: The Imperatives of Alignment and Assessment

By: Josh

“With all that we’ve discovered here, I’m worried about our vision. Should we change it?”

These were the expressed concerns of a leader whose team I was working with during their “Culture Conference.” Through a series of team-based exercises, we spent two days exploring the science and art of culture, particularly aiming at defining their organization’s unique culture. It was an awesome two days with inspiring reflections, hard truths surfaced, and building a coalition of committed members. However, it also led several leaders to question, “Are we on the right track based on what we are looking to get out of our culture? What do we need to change?”

Based on my time spent with the group and knowledge about the organization, I was confident about where they were. I reassured them that they had all the correct puzzle pieces in their possession – their vision was spot on, their newly captured values were authentic and guiding, and they were honest about where they were as an organization right now. They just needed to connect all these pieces to reveal the singular, whole picture. So, it wasn’t that the vision needed to change, or that the culture was off. Rather, I shared that we now simply needed to ensure the culture was aligned and assessed. We spent the rest of the day diving into these two culture imperatives, which helped complete their culture model and approach, making it authentic, complete, and enduring. It’s worth understanding these two culture imperatives for any organizational leader.  

It's important to know that during the conference, prior to this conversation, we first clearly defined the culture through the 3-level model of artifacts, values, and underlying beliefs. Second, we made the culture deliberate with the application of 10 universal lessons. With these foundations then in place, it was important to complete our understanding, control, and ownership of the culture through two final imperatives – alignment and assessment.

Leaders are not victims of culture. We shape it and drive it to improve the organization. Shaping our culture’s alignment and assessment are the final two ways leaders build an effective culture and use it maintain over time.

Cultural Alignment

Alignment means that our people know not only how to define our culture, but how to practice it as well. Members understand conceptually who we are, what we do, and why we do it as an organization, but are able to take it one step further and connect our organization’s routines and rituals to what we espouse as our culture. Most simply, alignment means that everything we do is connected, mutually supporting one another to continue building our desired culture. We don’t have random, unconnected activities as part of our routine. Instead, every practice we maintain is thoughtfully designed to help us accomplish our organization’s purpose (business related) and supports our cultural messages (brand and sustainability related).

The leader at the conference, though asking about the organization’s vision, I found was actually asking about their activities. He was really worried that what they were doing on a daily basis was not connected to what they were discussing during our Culture Conference and that the culture was all disorganized. So, to help him see that he had all the right tools in place, we talked through three actions he could take to help bring it all together, both cognitively and physically. These are three things all leaders can do to help bring alignment to their organization’s culture.

First, we drew out a “Culture Document” together. I pulled out a piece of paper and at the top, wrote “Vision.” I asked the leader to write out the organization’s vision. Then, below that I wrote “We Believe…” and had the leader capture all the impactful, desirable underlying assumptions and beliefs that they espoused during the conference. Then, below that I wrote, “We Believe…” and asked the leader to write out their new organizational values, which he did. Finally, toward the bottom, I wrote “What We Do.” Then, I had the leader list out all the artifacts they already do or ones they identified they need to start doing during the conference. He listed almost two dozen activities, routines, rituals, and processes. Once we filled out the paper, I asked him to analyze it. Do our artifacts at the bottom all fit? Do they fit what you are trying to achieve, and do they fit within the values, beliefs, and vision above it? What needs to go away or what needs to be added to successfully support all this?

I found that this simple act of writing down all the components of the culture on a single page helped the leader to better analyze, appreciate, and wholistically understand their culture. A similar activity and document can do the same for you and your organization as well.  Once iterated over a few times, it can even serve as a messaging tool internally to members and externally to potential hires, stakeholders, and other interested parties.

Second, I encouraged the leader to be deliberate in how he introduces new activities to the organization. It is all too easy for leaders to adopt new good ideas to the team under the banner of cultural development. They are well intended and will help, right? There’s nothing that can go wrong. However, we often overlook the impact to the organization’s capacity after we initiate it. What kind of burden does this place on our people and teams? Are there unintended, unseen consequences of adding this new activity? How will it be received?

So, I offered for the leader and his senior management team to consider something like a “Culture Impact Assessment” any time they are looking to introduce new activities, rituals, or routines. Dedicate a small team to analyze the potential new artifact to determine feasibility, impact, and possible consequences. Through this process, they can take on a sort of Red Team role, poking holes in the plan to ensure it is well developed and effective.

Finally, to help this leader appreciate the importance of cultural alignment and ensure he was equipped to do so moving forward, I challenged him to not make this two-day Culture Conference a one-time event. Something like this could be powerful if done annually. It could even be supported by quarterly one-day events, Culture Days, where leaders introduce and further explore the organization’s culture to more junior echelons to inspire commitment among the lower levels as well. Quarterly Culture Days could even serve as opportunities to identify and solve problems the organization continues to face, further building a shared mindset of cultural ownership.

From our conversation, the leader realized that the vision nor the culture were off at all. He just needed help putting all the pieces together to realize he had a great leadership team, a well-defined culture, and impactful activities to make it sustainable over time moving forward. But he also realized the power of cultural alignment and how intentional he needed to be in the future to ensure all components of their culture remained connected to create clarity.

Cultural Assessment

As our conversation transitioned to the topic of assessment, I could see the leader’s face turning skeptical. He interrupted me asking, “We’re not getting into math and algorithms and stuff like that are we?” I reassured him that though this is more of the science of culture, it won’t require a bunch of math or equations from him and his team.

I explained that by assessment, I mean explicit ways that leaders measure culture to determine its alignment, intensity, and consistency. Bottom line, how do we know our culture is developing and moving in the directions we want it to? Sure, we need to collect data, but it doesn’t have to be hard or scary. I offered the leader three ideas to consider moving forward, which all can apply to any organization in any industry.

First, I offered a simple survey. We can conduct regular surveys of our people to collect data and build a base of trends over time in ways that don’t even cost us money (Google Forms, Survey Monkey, etc.). But what kind of stuff do we ask and collect in our survey? I recommended starting with our organizational values. Use those as cultural measurables, looking at how well we live out those values – consistency and intensity – at the individual and collective levels. Turn the values into verbs and ask members to rate them as behaviors that we as an organization live out. This approach keeps the survey short but builds a strong baseline of data regarding behavior. Leaders can develop the survey more by incorporating opportunities for qualitative feedback (written out responses, rather than only ratings) to get more in-depth assessments and justifications. Leaders can also include a few questions about respondents’ demographics to collect data on trends based on rank, position, time in the organization, sub-unit, and so on.

Through this effort, leaders get a more objective and consistent view of the organization’s culture development. Done over routine intervals (I encourage quarterly), we get trend lines and can begin to correlate feedback to current events in the organization as well.

My second recommendation aimed to help put the leader at ease a little bit. I could tell he had a large reaction to the idea of organizational surveys. He knew they were important, but he also knew they would take a bit of work to create. So, my second recommendation was simply to ask about culture and seek feedback from others on it during his time outside the office talking with people, or what we call “Leadership by Wandering Around” time. Conversations like these are low-threat and can be great opportunities to get honest insight from people face-to-face. Feedback may be anecdotal, but great sources to verify survey data as well. I offered the leader that next week, he can ask two simple questions: (1) “What did you think of the Culture Conference last week?” and (2) “What do you think should be next for our organization after that?”

Finally, I said I had one more idea to help encourage culture assessment, but it was a more unique idea than any of the previous. I asked his opinions on the U.S. President’s annual State of the Union speech. I then asked if he could do something similar to that, say a “State of the Organization” to his members, stakeholders, and leaders. The leader looked cautious but intrigued. I continued describing the benefits. What if you delivered a State of the Organization to help your people understand the larger environment, challenges, and what the larger organization is facing. You can highlight impacts and successes. You can be transparent about challenges and the future. But through it, everyone gains a deeper appreciation for where the organization is and what is on your mind as the formal leader.

However, I told the leader that the speech was only the first half of the activity. Just like in politics, where the opposing party can provide a response, so too can the organization. I recommend the State of the Organization be followed by small group discussions with members exploring key take aways, understood challenges, and thought-through recommendations for the future. This not only leverages the power of diversity and perspective, but also gets members participating and owning the actual state of the organization. It becomes a two-way dialogue among teammates, not simply a top-down forced speech.

I could see the leader with an interested look and grin on his face as he jotted a few notes down. I could tell a lot was tumbling around in his head as he was considering how to develop their culture’s assessment mechanisms.

Putting it Together

Though I designed, organized, and led the entire two-day Culture Conference for the organization, this short conversation with the leader ended up being my favorite part. It became the final cherry on top of the ice cream created over the two days because through this conversation on alignment and assessment, I know the organization was equipped to make sure their culture endured. That was the final key they needed to be able to move forward, own their culture, and take action on their own without support from me or anyone else.

We started this 3-part dive into organizational culture by first acknowledging the challenges leaders face when it comes to this tough topic. Culture is big, unwieldy, and easily overwhelming. It’s hard to tackle, which is why I believe many leaders avoid it or outsource it. But we are not victims of culture. We shape it as a tool to build our organization. So, we start by defining it. Then we develop it. And finally, we complete it by making sure it is sustainable over time through alignment and assessment.

Culture requires leaders’ attention every day. It’s like a living plant, always growing. But we must attend to it to ensure it is growing in the ways we want. Over time and through all our effort, we will then begin to see the power of culture and what it can do for our organization. Then we start to understand Peter Drucker’s infamous quote…that culture does in fact eat strategy for breakfast.

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