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While many models exist to define organizational culture, a simple and effective model (adapted from Gerry Johnson) defines culture as the set of rituals and myths that establish the way things get done and the way we describe ourselves.

Using this model as a basis, we can list the set of rituals (meetings, events, routine practices) and myths (how we describe our company’s mission & values, our individual strengths & roles, our team dynamics and language) that exist today and the ones we would like to establish in the future. Here’s a few steps you can follow with your team to take stock of your current culture and make positive changes.

  1. Prepare for a Current Culture Workshop
    1. Ask people to prepare for a workshop style session by listing 10 rituals that define the way things get done in the office. Give them categories (but not specific examples), such as how decisions are made, how information is shared, or how tasks get assigned/completed.
    2. Additionally, ask them to document, either by writing or recording video, a description of the organization’s mission and values, their individual roles, and what makes the organization competitive. One scenario for this is how they would describe those elements to a potential employee during an interview.
    3. Bring the group together, share the ideas that have been prepared in advance. If possible, combine all the material from parts A & B into two wordles to visually depict the most frequently used words. At the end of the workshop, you will have compiled a common set of rituals and myths that the group believes represents the current culture.
  2. Observe the species in its native habitat
    1. Gather a second group of people–who did not take part in the Current Culture Workshop–to spend an hour a day observing their co-workers in action. Ask the group to observe during a different portion of the day for a week, and collect observations in the same groups listed above in 1A.
    2. Additionally, ask the group to write down or record the language people use to describe the same elements listed above in 1B.
    3. Again, compile the observations and use wordles or another straightforward visual tool to summarize the results.
  3. Compare perception with reality and craft the future state
    1. Use your best judgement to determine if your team is suffering from workshop overload. But when they are ready to contribute, first digest any gaps between the perceived current state (part 1 above) and what was observed (part 2). Be prepared for the usual skeptics in the room who will find flaws in the sampling methods and bias in the observers. Put those people on your Nobel seeking research team. And then for the rest of the pragmatists in the room, have a frank conversation about any gaps between perception and reality.
    2. Craft the action plan to improve the culture using the stop/start/more exercise. As I have described previously, this workshop technique is effective in drawing out specific actions and language that the team wants more (or less) of. Be sure to follow best practices in assigning actions with owners (who are in the room at the time) and due dates.
    3. Follow up in a month and assess the change. No need for exhaustive studies at this point: start simply and add detail only if it’s required. Bring the group back together and review the stop/start/more flip charts. As you point at each item on the list, scan the room as the group shows a thumbs-up (if we are following through) or a thumbs-down (if we are not following through or we’re not sure). This quick check in will help assess if corrective actions are required, and whether you have enough information to know where to focus.

Culture can be hard to define, but like another form of artistic expression that was once famously described in the Supreme Court, you “know it when you see it.” When you take the time to define your team’s culture in terms of rituals and myths, you will have a better understanding and a better ability to shape the culture for the better.