Business Transformation and The Hard Science of Corporate Culture
December 12, 2019
December 12, 2019

Culture is the lifeblood of an organization, shaping its ability to innovate, compete and engage employees and customers alike. While its explicit definition may vary from one company to the next, culture can be boiled down to the shared attitudes, goals, behaviors and beliefs held by leaders and employees. Simply put, culture is all about what drives and motivates employees (think: mission, vision and values), not the perks they get for showing up (from swag bags to dogs at work, the list is long). There’s nothing wrong with putting a foosball table in the breakroom or providing free catered lunches, but these things shouldn’t be confused with the cultural components that lie at the heart of your organization.

Despite its undisputed significance, culture is something that’s often difficult to measure. Even seasoned leaders and HR professionals, the traditional arbiters of all things culture, find it particularly challenging to quantify such a soft, intangible concept.

Whether your goal is to preserve culture during a period of transformational change, or to improve alignment around your organization’s shared purpose, conducting a culture assessment can help define the path forward.

Establish a Baseline

You can’t measure what you don’t know, so the first step of a culture assessment is to gauge the current cultural climate. This involves gaining an understanding of the spoken and unspoken perceptions of leaders and employees within your organization. For example, do employees feel that they can take creative risks? Are they empowered to speak their minds without fear of punishment or shaming? Do leaders encourage employees to think outside the box when problem-solving?

The answers to these questions can help determine whether or not everyone’s operating from the same set of basic principles.

Classify Current State Vs. Future State

During this information-gathering phase, it’s important to collect data from several sources, such as employee surveys and focus groups, to capture and distill the underlying gestalt of your organization. Insights into key cultural elements, including levers like teamwork, communication, collaboration and agility, will help leaders evaluate a clear current state culture and define the strategy moving forward.

Pinpoint Gaps in Your Maturity

Identifying your maturity on key cultural elements can be a valuable exercise for sustaining a strong culture or strengthening a struggling one. But what information should you gather?

One approach is to create a scale with distinctly defined stages for each of the elements in your culture. Take mission and values, for example, which can be characterized as “the stated values of the organization, and how well employees understand and demonstrate those values.” You can measure mission and values using the following scale:

  • Informal: There is not a clear definition of organizational mission and values.
  • Surfacing: Developing mission and values. There may be ad hoc concepts in pockets of the organization, but generally, no apparent connection between the corporate mission and stated values, or no consistency throughout the organization.
  • Evolving: Mission and values may be defined but are not well articulated or demonstrated throughout the organization. They do not elicit the intended behaviors.
  • Proficient: Mission and values are well understood throughout the organization. Decisions and behaviors clearly reflect the stated mission and values.
  • Advanced: Mission and values drive strategy and decision-making. They are inspirational throughout the organization.

Collecting this data from key stakeholders helps you establish a baseline, which can then be measured over time to determine how your efforts affect these key cultural elements. It also gives you the ability to identify gaps in how each of these levers is perceived differently among those stakeholder groups. Do professionals on the frontline have a different idea of your mission and values than the leadership team? Can everyone articulate them? If not, you know where the work ahead lies.

Align Teams Behind a Shared Purpose

Assessing current state culture provides both a foundation and a framework that will support all future developments. After collecting feedback, analyzing the data and understanding your organizational strengths and opportunities, you’ll have a comprehensive—and measurable—definition of culture. With this definition in hand, you can begin the work of aligning team members behind a shared purpose.

Although culture is not a top-down mandate, it’s important that these initiatives start with leadership. Equipping leaders and managers with the tools they need to encourage change is crucial to gaining buy-in from the rest of the group.

Your company’s culture is a living, breathing organism that employees need to work on implementing and supporting every day. Culture assessments work because they establish a baseline against which all future changes or improvements can be measured. By unearthing what makes your company tick, you can better understand where your organization is and where you want it to go.