What is True, Important and Right? (Culture)

“Culture is the system of shared beliefs (what is true), shared values (what is important) and shared norms (what is right) that orient members about the way things get done in their organization, what expectations they need to fulfill to fit in, and what they can expect – and demand – from others.” – Fred Kofman, “Culture: Key to Organizational Success”

My sons went to an elementary school where many of the teachers were teaching when I had been teaching in the same District at the beginning of my career, twenty years previously.  Two of them were individuals whom I had witnessed as being in a constant mood of resentment (not accepting what has happened in the past) and resignation (not seeing any possibilities for the future).  They not only saw the glass half empty, they often questioned why there was a glass in the first place.

Their moods were infectious – what author Daniel Goleman calls “limbic resonance” – and some other teachers and staff were subtly influenced by their day-to-day interactions.  They contributed to a culture that was not what you would hope for in an elementary school where the joy and excitement of learning can be nourished or extinguished by the mood that’s present.  And their behavior was never directly confronted by the leaders at the time.

What was amazing to me was that two generations later, this school had signs of the moods that inhabited the building fifty years ago and, in many cases, this behavior could be traced back to interactions in each generation where younger teachers “learned” the behavior from older ones.

Culture” is a word that many people use but few can clearly define.  In many organizations, the culture is “accidental,” like the elementary school described above.  Businesses and non-profits aren’t immune to this, either.  But leaders need to be intentional about defining the culture they want to create so that the organization can be a place that energizes and engages staff; is clear about what is true, important, and right; and provides an effective framework to support the strategies that lead to success.  A clear cultural design combined with widespread buy-in can be the defining difference between a mediocre organization and a successful one.  Without this definition, everyone is bringing their own culture to work – often creating conflicts with the organization.

According to Kofman, there are five conditions for an effective culture:

  1. It’s strategic – it supports strategy execution, creating a context in which people are encouraged and empowered to do their very best to achieve strategic objectives
  2. It’s integrative – it aligns members’ efforts without the costs and inefficiencies of bureaucracy or close supervision. It has high agreement about what’s valued and high intensity about these values
  3. It’s cohesive – it provides members with a sense of belonging and community. It unifies each one of the individual “I’s” into a collective “we”
  4. It’s innovative – it supports risk-taking and change
  5. It’s adaptive – it promotes flexibility and experimentation

Another way that organizations are looking at culture is through the lens of “organizational health.” In an article,  “The Link Between Meaning and Organizational Health,” McKinsey partners Rodgers Palmer and Bill Schaninger define organizational health as “the organization’s ability to align around a common vision, execute against that vision effectively, and renew itself through creative thinking.”   They shared the following conditions that make this link:

  1. The ability of leaders to connect daily work to a grander goal (think vision); the ability to give employees a clear sense of where an organization is headed (direction)
  2. A sense of job control is central to physical and mental health of employees
  3. Giving people a sense of ownership and control contributes to a greater sense of accountability, to a better work environment, and to stronger execution skills

Their colleagues Dan Cable and Freek Vemeulen wrote about making work meaningful and found that people deliver their best effort and ideas when they feel they are part of something larger than the pursuit of a paycheck.  Here’s what they suggest to make work meaningful:

  1. Reduce anonymity – find ways to establish deeper connections between any worker and his or her customers
  2. Help people grasp the impact of their work on the customer – give employees a clear sense of how their work directly affects specific customers
  3. Notice, recognize, and reward good work – employees want to know that their work is noticed and valued. Smart companies find meaningful ways to do this without doling out raises and bonuses
  4. Connect daily work to a grander goal – help employees understand how their daily responsibilities tie in to a higher meaning, to a purpose larger than themselves. Employees must clearly see how their organization is trying to contribute to a higher purpose, in the form of concrete strategic intent.  Why they are doing something is more important than what they are doing

So how do you intentionally build a culture?  In previous posts, we’ve talked about defining purpose and telling the story of your vision of the future as a leader.  Any cultural design must support the purpose of the organization and help it achieve its vision.  Culture is the framework on which everything else is built.  It’s the playing field and rules for your game and the supporting structure for achieving success.  Why would you want that to be accidental?

Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, and Kavi Guppta have developed one way that I’ve found to be effective in working with clients.  In a blog post, “Don’t Let Your Company Culture Just Happen,” they introduce a simple, three step process that allows you to consider three key elements of organizational culture – the outcomes you’re trying to produce, the behaviors that allow those outcomes to be achieved, and what enables and blocks those behaviors from happening in the organization.


Using the template above (usually creating it on large flip chart paper or large format printing) and 3”x3” Post-Its, you can begin to build the ideal organization (and/or, as they suggest, the “nightmare” organization first to see what elements you don’t want – and might currently have) by brainstorming with a team of people who you think would be best suited to be your collaborative partners in building the culture that would allow your people to flourish and would enable you to achieve your goals, moving towards your vision.

As you work through each level, starting with the outcomes that you’re trying to achieve as an organization, then the behaviors that would contribute to the achievement of those outcomes, and finally, what would enable or block those behaviors from happening, remember that you’re brainstorming and that you don’t want to move too quickly to the final culture map.  Let it percolate for a while and come back to it in subsequent team sessions where you can continue to refine it.

One of the bonuses of this activity is that, by defining your desired behaviors that allow you to achieve your outcomes, you’ll be defining the values that drive your organization.  Articulating shared values are an essential element in the “why we exist” component of every organizational framework, including vision and mission.   (We’ll take a look at values in a future post).

Once you’ve got it to a place where everyone is comfortable with what you’ve defined, commission a team to roll it out to the organization.   Remember, it doesn’t have to be “perfect;” in all likelihood, you’ll be revising and improving it over time.  Being intentional about what you want your culture to be is the important takeaway.  Don’t let it be hijacked by tradition or outside behaviors that take over like weeds in your garden.  You either weed them out or let them flourish, drowning out the rest of the garden.

© Geoff Davis, 11/30/18

2 thoughts on “What is True, Important and Right? (Culture)

  1. Curious to know what happens to vision, and connection to a greater idea than making money in the 3 step model of outcomes, behaviors and blockers/enablers. Would those things go into the enbabling category?

    1. What’s funny is that every time I’ve done this with a business, “making money” doesn’t show up. I think it’s because, as Kofman says, making money is an intermediary outcome. He believes the outcome or definition of success in organizations is the creation of happiness.

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