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12 Ways to Apply the Culture Design Canvas

There are many more ways to apply the Culture Design Canvas besides mapping an existing culture or designing a new one.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 1, 2020

There are many, many ways to use the Culture Design Canvas (CDC). People often use it to map their existing workplace culture or to design a new one. However, there are many other ways you can benefit from this tool.

Over the past few months, I’ve observed a lot of different professionals who are using the CDC in different types of organizations. Recently, I’ve been interviewing some practitioners to better understand how they’re applying it.

When I created the Culture Design Canvas, I couldn’t have imagined all the different applications people would come up with. In this post, I will cover 12 ways you can apply the CDC. 

1. Mapping Workplace Culture

Map Existing Workplace Cultures:

This is the most common way organizations are applying the CDC. They use it to create a one-page blueprint of their current culture.

The Culture Canvas is an easy to use tool to put the culture into words; it helps drive clarity and alignment, as well as identify areas for improvement.

Design A New Culture

Startups or teams are using it to define their culture. Organizations that lack a clear or healthy culture are using the CDC to design a new one.

The Culture Design Canvas is an effective way to create a blueprint of the desired state. Having a clear, one-page vision for the future facilitates conversations about what needs to happen.

Upgrade Your Organizational Culture

The culture of an organization is not static, but continually changes. The CDC is a dynamic tool that helps keep your culture relevant and current.

We’ve seen organizations using it to identify gaps across countries or business units. Some view it as a springboard; rather than just forcing alignment, they invite employees to challenge the culture and see what can be improved.

Culture Retrospective

Once you’ve mapped your existing or future culture, the CDC helps review and reflect on improvements done.

Some teams approach it like a dashboard, assigning indicators for the key building blocks. When doing a culture retrospective, they track improvements, review what is and isn’t working, and decide future actions.

2. Create A Shared Language

In many companies, the culture is expressed in vague terms or lacks a shared vision, creating confusion about what the company stands for.

An immediate benefit of the CDC is to create a cultural blueprint that creates a shared language. The 10 building blocks of the Culture Design Canvas and its language are both human and straightforward.

The CDC facilitates conversations about the company culture; people understand it and adopt it very quickly. The Culture Design Canvas provides a shared language for mapping, visualizing, designing, and evolving workplace culture.

Having a shared language doesn’t just facilitate conversations; it also makes them more strategic and relevant. People don’t only discuss values, but concrete actions. The CDC encourages people to ask for feedback, have more productive meetings, or improve decision-making.

3. Design The Culture of  Your Team

The CDC was created to design workplace culture; it can help map how a team can work better, not just an organization.

The companies that have been using the CDC for a longer time encourage their teams to create their blueprint, also. It helps to bring clarity and cohesion to the goals, priorities, and values at a team level.

People’s sense of belonging to their teams is stronger than that of the broader organization. We are tribal by nature –  the smaller the group, the stronger our affiliation.

A fast-growth food startup has consolidated its marketing and innovation teams under the same leader. The Chicago-based company facilitated a session to design how the culture of the newly-formed team should look.

The culture of a team must complement the organization’s one. Designing team culture is not about creating silos, but allowing customization of some aspects of the company’s culture.

Try the CDC to design the culture of your team, too.

4. Drive Alignment

Clarity is the first step toward driving alignment. Having a one-page blueprint of your company culture makes it easier for everyone to understand what the company stands for.

Organizations apply the CDC to both put their culture into words and in a visual way that is easy to understand, share, and adopt. On top of the one-page canvas, we create interactive presentations that allow employees to dive deeper into each of the ‘post-its.’

Making your organization’s CDC visible to all employees facilitates alignment. This is mainly because this tool goes beyond company values; it also addresses how people’s behavior brings culture to life.

Alignment starts with company purpose and core values, but should also include expected behaviors. The CDC clarifies how to make decisions, what the company’s priorities are, and which behaviors are rewarded or punished.

5. Uncover Gaps

The cultures of organizations are never monolithic. Many factors drive internal variations, creating gaps in how the culture is perceived.

Senior executives tend to have a more positive view of their corporate workplace than their employees do, as the Corporate Culture Chasm survey from VitalSmarts shows.

Cultural gaps are not limited to seniority levels; there are variations across business functions (e.g. finance vs. sales) and business units or countries.

The Culture Design Canvas helps uncover and address those gaps. For example, while working with a food company to map its global culture, we discovered several discrepancies between what the global HQ thinks the culture is and the perception at a local level.

One of the critical issues we discovered is related to the behavior that the company (truly) rewards. While one of the core global values is “Play as a team,” employees in most local offices feel that global executives really want them to compete with one another.

Uncovering cultural gaps is usually an eye-opener for senior executives. It’s also a reminder that the culture of an organization is not what the corporate website states, but is a living thing displayed in everyday behaviors.

6. Map Competitors (Freshwatching)

The Culture Design Canvas can be used to not only develop your company culture, but also analyze your competitors. How do you know if your workplace culture is a competitive advantage?

Analyzing other cultures will help you determine whether your company culture is unique and different.

The ideation technique Freshwatching, a term coined in the Netherlands, is about mixing and matching elements from other companies’ business models with your own.

The same approach works for culture design; you can use this technique to challenge your current culture or to design your future state. Reviewing and comparing key elements from other companies helps spark exciting conversations.

I’m not suggesting mapping every competitor or copying their culture either, but when you get stuck working on one of the building blocks of the CDC or want to explore new possibilities, Freshwatching will start your creative engine.

Want some inspiration? Check out these examples of companies with powerful cultures.

7. Break the “Old” Versus “New” Divide

The clash between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘newcomers’ puts the identity of an organization to test. Those who want to innovate focus on the future, while others want to preserve the past.

The same happens with generational divides. Too often, the perspective and ways of working of younger people are undervalued. At the same time, older employees are seen as outdated; they are cast aside because their primary experiences were pre-Internet.

However, organizations need to bring together new skills and perspectives, as well as the wisdom of those who have learned to overcome several business crises.

The CDC has a “yes, and…” approach; it encourages people to see things as complementary rather than defending the “this is not the way we do things here” mentality. A well-facilitated session, where everyone works on filling the Canvas together, can quickly become a collaborative experience.

The CDC is a collaborative tool that invites people to design the culture together. Rather than fostering the divide, it promotes integration  –  people realize that everyone’s ideas count.

8. Understand New Hires’ Expectations

It’s interesting to see how some users are experimenting with the CDC and applying it in new ways. I learned about this application last week when having a conversation with a British recruiting firm.

When hiring new employees, companies always try to ‘sell’ their culture as a way to seduce new candidates. Usually, however, they forget to understand people’s expectations of what a “good” culture looks like.

At Collabz, the in-house recruitment company, they use the CDC to understand which type of culture helps people thrive. Candidates receive a blank copy of the canvas and complete it to design their ideal work culture.

Recruiters pose an interesting question to inspire candidates: “Think about the culture you like to work in; what environment do you feel will be able to get the best out of you?”

Afterward, recruiters compare the company culture with people’s expectations to find commonalities and tensions. This exercise not only helps find candidates who are a good fit for the organization, but it’s also a great way to understand what kind of workplaces people are looking for.

9. Onboard New Employees

Having a one-page blueprint of your organization’s culture makes it easier to onboard new employees. It’s more human and engaging than presenting a PowerPoint deck, inviting a dialogue between the new employee and those onboarding them.

Sharing a Prezi version of your CDC, allows the person to get back to it on their own time and terms, continuing to familiarize themselves with the company culture.

You can also print a hard copy of the one-page CDC so the new employee can keep it somewhere visible as a reminder. Encourage people to use the CDC to create conversations with other employees, from asking them more about a particular ritual and learning about how meetings are managed, to which elements of the Culture Design Canvas are really lived, and which are not.

The CDC is an engaging way to immerse new hires into a culture so that it can become their own.

10. Address Cultural Tensions

The culture of a company is continually evolving; executives must understand that designing and nurturing culture is not a one-time job.

During times of significant change, 77% of employees experience cultural tensions, according to research by Gartner. Conflicting priorities across departments, limiting mindsets, or a lack of clarity can get teams stuck.

Should people prioritize speed or quality? What behavior does the organization reward; being innovative or efficient? How shall employees react when new initiatives conflict with corporate core values?

The Cultural Tensions Canvas is part of the CDC toolkit; it helps uncover and solve what’s getting a team stuck. As its name indicates, it helps address cultural tensions.

Applying this tool with a large healthcare firm, helped spark candid conversations that turned the team around. By connecting with their emotions, they could realize which ones were blocking them and which were driving everyone forward. They also learned to discern liberating mindsets from limiting ones, and how to favor the first over the latter.

11. Onboard New Leaders

Workplace culture is a fragile, curious beast that needs to be understood and tamed. Unfortunately, many leaders want to change a company or team before familiarizing themselves with the culture. Often, they end up creating more problems than solutions.

As G.K. Chesterton famously said, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

The CDC is a simple way to share the culture of an organization with a new executive. Not only is it easy for them to visualize the culture of the company quickly, but it also increases their awareness of all the building blocks they need to consider before trying to change something.

How does the company promote psychological safety? Is the culture safe enough for people to experiment with new ways of working? What team rituals are pulling the team forward or backward?

Newly appointed leaders are using the CDC to kick-off engaging conversations with their teams.

Sharing a common language makes the dialogue feel less intimidating as people perceive that the senior executive wants to learn more rather than ignore the existing culture. It also helps uncover why the fences were put up and understand, which are worth pulling down.

12. Mergers and Acquisitions

Many factors can cause a merger or acquisition to fail. However, when the deal goes through and things don’t go as expected, executives usually blame the culture.

In a study by Bain, a culture clash was the top reason for a deal’s failure to achieve the expected return on investment.

According to executives who have managed several mergers, there is usually a conflict between principles, values, and ways of working. They create a culture clash that makes it difficult for two organizations to work as one.

A culture compatibility assessment is vital to increase the chances that both companies will get along. Learn more about how to integrate cultures across the M&A process.

An Australian consultant who specializes in M&A has been using The Culture Design Canvas to evaluate potential culture clashes before a deal even moves forward. This firm is also coaching organizations to overcome culture clashes, in the case of deals that went through without accurately assessing conflicting cultures.

When you buy a company, you are also acquiring its culture. The business case should consider how to integrate both ways of doing things. You cannot merge two cultures, or impose one over another either, hostile culture takeovers don’t go very well.

How Do You Use the Culture Design Canvas?

It’s incredible to see how the Culture Design Canvas has created such rapid adoption. It’s also exciting to see how users are experimenting with new ways of using the tool that I hadn’t envisioned when I created it.

I hope the 12 ways to apply the Culture Design Canvas will inspire you to try it, or take your Canvas’ skills to the next level if you are already using it.

What other ways have you discovered to use the Culture Design Canvas? How are you applying it in your team or organization?

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