Recently, I took part in a leadership forum on creating a culture that drives performance and innovation.

Ah, the magic word culture! (And the magic word innovation, too, for that matter.)

So Culture Is the Game…

Talking to managers, I sense a growing awareness of the importance of culture in the first place, and the realization that cultures can be shaped and that managers have their role to play doing so.

Why do the recipes to successfully innovate in one company don’t transfer to another company? How can one company reinvent itself but another can’t? What explains the attractiveness to go work for certain organizations?

Popular quotes these days include this one from former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner:

Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success — along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like… I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.

Another one is attributed to Peter Drucker, who may or may not have actually said it:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Yep, culture is a growing area of attention for corporations.

Defining Culture As Moving Chairs

Fundamentally, culture is about the meaning people make of the world and their company.

My favorite example of company culture I’ve read goes something like this.

Once upon a time their was a company where middle management lived on the third floor, and senior managers on the fourth floor. Carpet was nicer on the fourth floor, chairs and offices were bigger…you get the picture.

One day, the middle managers had to have one of their meetings on the floor above because their own meeting room wasn’t available. Overnight staff switched the luxurious chairs in the senior management room with the chairs of the floor below.

Nobody told them to do so, but culture demanded that you sat in the right chair.

Culture is the collection of habits and beliefs of how things ought to be. Anytime you hear the words ‘That is just how things are done around here,’ that’s culture.

Yes, It Is Complex

One of the leadership development programs I created spends half of its time on the leaders and their own challenges, and half of the time on shaping the company culture.

The energy in the room is very different: as excited as people are to work on their innovation challenges, they become demotivated to tackle culture: What do you want me to do about it? It’s just as it is…

I’ll give you that both innovation and culture are complex matters. I’m using the definition of complexity from the Cynefin framework: Complex means you can only see the relationship between cause and effect in hindsight, not up front.

But complex doesn’t mean unmanageable. It just means focusing on what you can manage. Hint: it involves giving up the idea you can control culture.

5 Things You Can Do to Shape Culture

So whereas you can’t fully control a complex entity like culture, you can do your part to shape it. Here is what you can do:

1. Continuously sense the culture. Walk around with a mental video-recorder and observe the culture as it currently is.

Think back about the chairs example. Anytime you hear ‘That’s just how things are around here.’—Bingo.

There are assessments out there to give you a state of the culture. Your job is to continuously do this, not once a year in a strategic workshop.

2. Continuously contribute to the conversation what the culture ought to be. Help to align your organization on what the ‘to be’ state of the culture is.

What elements of our current culture are helping us and what elements are actually hindering us to grow and create value? (Yep, that links to business strategy.)

3. Model the culture in your own behavior. Start by showing the ‘to be’ culture in big and small ways. What you say is important. But what you do matters more.

4. Dampen the elements of the culture that are hindering growth. A powerful way to get less of unwanted cultural elements is to ignore them and not dignify those with attention.

If that doesn’t do the trick, call those behaviors out or actively oppose them.

5. Strengthen the elements of the culture that are helping growth. Contrarily, acknowledge and celebrate the wanted cultural elements.

Give at least positive feedback and praise, or even better, give your support in terms of influence, contacts, or resources.

Reposted from the Homocompetens blog.

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