Culture is based on tangible things

Organisational culture is seemingly nebulous, hard to pin down. But in fact it’s based on very concrete, tangible things. It follows that by changing those tangible things we can change the culture of an organisation.

Over many years I’ve read about the new breed of digital companies, and how they often value nurturing and developing a distinct corporate culture. Esty evolved a culture of diversity and liberalism; Amazon famously has a culture of make-do and thrift, which arguably has gone somewhat off-course; Spotify aimed for a culture among the engineering teams of high autonomy and strong alignment.

If we talk about culture—and particularly if we talk about aspiring to develop or maintain a particular culture—then we need to be very clear about what we are talking about.

There’s a reason people say an organisation’s culture is like this or like that—it’s because of the tangible things they see and hear around them. Culture can be seen and heard in real things like how we talk to each other, how we treat each other, what we consider important and not important, what people get rewarded for, what kind of work people are required to spend their time on, and so on.

Yesterday Paul Field of Clarity of Purpose introduced me to Robert Dilt’s logical levels model. It’s not science, it’s just a model. But it seemed to me a useful way of looking at corporate culture. (I’ve missed off the top level, spirituality, as that seems more appropriate to a person rather than an organisation.)

Typical cultural values such as “collaborative” would live at the beliefs/values level; we can see they are underpinned by capability and competence. If we aspire to be collaborative we should therefore ask ourselves if we have the right tools and skills to be so—what would these look like? Do we have people who know how to collaborate, and how do we support them? Beneath that is behaviour and then environment. Do we allow and encourage people to behave in a collaborative way? Do we have the physical environment to help?

Another source lists cultural factors as leadership (status), workload, capability, relationships, and controls. These are all tangible things that we observe and that collectively provide a description of how an organisation operates.

We can come up with our own lists, too. If we have first hand knowledge an organisation with a particular culture, we can ask ourselves: Why do I think that about it? What did I see that was an example of that? What happens there that other organisations might do differently?

By asking these questions we can reduce that seemingly intangible thing to something real. And if we want to change the culture we now have some levers to do so.