CHICAGO — So many people have written books on culture, seeking to explain what it is and why it matters. Companies spend gobs of money trying to define it, and most by now know that a strong company culture is key to success. But Jamie Notter, co-founder and consultant at Human Workplaces, was done with vague definitions (after, of course, writing a kind of culture book himself).
"We don't need that right now. We need to get tangible with it," he said during a session at #SHRM18. To Notter, culture has to go beyond just a buzzword; it has to become "a useable business tool."
How to actually define culture
According to Notter, culture lives on in the words, actions, thoughts and "stuff" within an organization — and how an organization defines culture has to be rooted in concrete details that a manager could use as examples to prove the point.
"What is your answer to 'what is the culture here?'" he said. "Just saying 'awesome' or 'great' doesn't go far enough."
Even a popular phrase to describe a culture — "we're like a family here" — introduces variables an organization likely doesn’t want. "The number one word associated with family is 'dysfunctional,'" he said; there’s no way to tell what an applicant thinks when a recruiter uses that phrase.
That's where "stuff" comes in. A better example would be something akin to "we are fiercely collaborative," as that can be reflected in any number of actionable examples that a recruiter could point to. An open office design, how people and teams interact and generally what kind of policies are in place all likely reflect "fierce collaboration" if it is a true statement.
Behaviors within the organization do a lot of the work to define the actual culture at hand, and they have to be consistent, Notter said. A manager can't say one thing but then allow people to act in ways that are converse to what is stated — like saying you only care about the work getting done, not face time, and yet still snipe behind workers backs when they leave early.
Reflect on the tangible elements of your organization to find the truths about the company’s culture, he said. The office space, where your CEO sits, and which dress code you enforce can all clarify the values on which a workplace situates itself. A CEO in one of Notter’s case studies set a simple, two-word dress code: no nudity. The CEO believed so strongly in letting people bring their whole selves to work that even forcing people into business casual felt like shutting off a part of his workers' personalities, Notter said, and he followed through by celebrating when his execs stopped wearing suits. That's an example of strong cultural value.
"What you need to develop is a clear model for describing to everyone internally how we do it here," he said. What is valued? What is not valued? What does a company emphasize and what does it not care about so much?
The workplace genome model
Once an employer begins to define its culture, it can fall into a number of traps.
"When you define your culture, I'm telling you right now, you'll be drawn to defining if your culture is good or bad at things like these. You have to resist that urge," he said. It's not helpful to state "we are good at being innovative." Instead, Notter said, he'd want to know how a company carries out its culture. How do you do agility? Do you employ a traditional management style, or do you put power in the hands of every individual in the organization? Applicants and employees need to see that picture.
To do that, Notter set up the Workplace Genome Model. Something like “innovation” can be broken down into a number of concepts and actions that can be measured, including creativity, inspiration, permission to hack, risk-taking and experimentation. The true money, Notter said, is in figuring out how people respond to the action aspect of the definition. If a company says it is innovative, but experimentation rates low on the scale, how is it actually performing any innovation?
“That gives you fodder to do something different,” he said. Because if you don’t have behaviors in conjunction with concepts, the entire overall notion — innovation — won’t be real. An easy place for a company to start sorting this information out could be its current engagement surveys, since it has some of that data already — just be sure to strip out anything that refers to culture as good or bad, he said.
What is it like here? How do we do this? These are important guiding questions for any exploration into culture.
Engaging in culture change
Notter gets a lot of pushback when he works with companies at times, he said; one group once told him it takes as long as eight years to change a culture. But, he said, you can radically transform a culture in 12 months if a company is willing to put in the hard work — including firing people in some cases.
When you have a culture that you know drives success, and a person doesn’t like the parts of it that drive that success, sometimes that’s just the way it goes, Notter said. When hiring for “culture fit,” that’s what a recruiter should look for: someone who loves the behaviors that drive success. A person who has the hard skills required for the job but doesn’t like to collaborate likely shouldn’t be hired to work somewhere that values collaboration.
It’s important to remember that in every culture, there are subgroups — and that’s okay if it isn’t getting in the way of success. If a disparate culture allows scientists to do their jobs and security personnel to do theirs, that may be fine. But if it is driving women and minorities away, for example, it likely isn’t working and something may need to be done to shake up that subgroup, he said.
One way to make an actionable plan for culture is to create “culture playbooks,” Notter explained. A playbook, like in sports, can be adapted, and sometimes a play may fail. But at the end of the day, it should contain information and experimental plays on a variety of aspects:
Rituals and artifacts. What are the things or aspects of your culture that people do that differentiate you? A weekly all-hands meeting? A monthly birthday celebration? Which of these things bring people together, and which really annoy people?
Stewardship. This trait often comes about through mentorship. Who owns the culture?
Talent/HR. Who works for you and how do you manage them? Google’s famous 20% time — in which 20% of a worker’s time can be spent working on alternative projects — is an example of a talent play. Gmail eventually came out of that program, for example.
Process. A lot of HR work is based in processes, so HR has strong potential to make an impact here. For example, to encourage experiments, post somewhere public the number of experiments going on alongside the number of failures. And if your failure rate is 0%, “you aren’t doing it right,” Notter said. An organization has to make visible that people are experimenting and are also allowed to fail, if it wants to see innovation.
Structure/design. An open office, for example, is a structure that has a set of pluses and minuses that an employer would have to weigh before flatly adopting it for their office on the advice of someone else, Notter said.
Technology. Idea and management software are examples of technology-based plays. Systems in which employees can post ideas and upvote each other can jumpstart an innovating culture, for example, Notter said.
Employers may need to get used to the sports metaphor at hand. According to Notter, culture management is coming.
“I want to make culture management a thing,” he said. An executive would be able to get information on financial management in an organization at nearly a moment’s notice, but if a manager went to someone and asked “what cultural priorities have you set this year and how have you moved on the needle on them?”, few could likely respond with the same speed, if at all, Notter said.
“We do that in every other part of the business,” he said, “but we don’t do that with culture, and we need to."