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Why Culture Mapping Is Crucial to Design Successful Organizations

Culture design is a non-linear, iterative process to understand your current culture, assess what’s working or not, and create more human, agile, innovative cultures.

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 15, 2021

Understand What's the Process to Design and Build a Strong Workplace Culture

Mapping your company culture is critical in order to understand what your organization stands for. It helps reveal the gap between the ideal culture and the real one, uncovering growth opportunities.

Codifying your current culture is about discovering how different employees view your company culture. It's the process of mapping the beliefs and practices that are already in place.

As Jeff Bezos said, "You can write down your company culture, but when you do so, you're discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it."

Even if you have a well-defined culture, mapping it will help clarify expectations. The rise of a hybrid workplace has disrupted the way employees collaborate. Codifying your evolved culture will help get everyone on the same page.

Culture mapping is vital for organizational transformation, improving employee behavior, performance, productivity, and innovation.

Here's how it works.

What Are the Principles of Culture Design?

Your company culture can happen by chance or by design.

Many professionals believe that culture is intangible and organic. They resist the notion that culture can be designed. However, our 4-year research has shown that successful organizations are not the result of luck, but intentional design.

Culture design is a non-linear, iterative process to create more human, agile, innovative organizations. It's not about imposing a new way, but building on what already exists – it's designing the roadmap, not forcing change.

At Fearless Culture, we are on a quest to advance the discipline of culture design – the same way design thinking transformed innovation. We've been training professionals across the world and sharing our method – and countless tools – to map, assess, and evolve workplace culture.

Five principles define culture design:

1. Human-centric

Culture Design is all about building a culture that's based on people's needs and using feedback to continually improve it. The approach starts with the employee in mind: how they perceive their organization's culture and what is or isn't working.  

2. Culture is a system

Every organization has a system that shapes the behavior of its employees. Increasing performance and innovation requires focusing on the forest rather than the tree.

The Culture Design Canvas helps map out all the elements of the cultural system – it goes well beyond values or purpose.

3. Co-creation

Leaders play a critical role in defining their company culture and modeling expected behaviors. However, it's people's behavior that actually shapes the culture. Culture design is a co-creation process. Not only do you want to understand how people view the real culture, but you also tap into the collective wisdom to find solutions that will help improve it.

4. Experimentation and iteration

Culture design is an iterative process, not a one-time activity. You never know which new practices will stick. What worked yesterday most probably won't work tomorrow. Be prepared to adapt. Culture design includes preserving the essence of what you stand for, adopting new practices, and replacing old standards with new ones.

5. Culture evolution, not change

The idea of culture change sends the wrong message. People feel that they need to get rid of everything they stand for to build a new culture. Instead, evolution is about building from what's working while taking care of what needs to be eliminated or improved.

Culture evolution encourages us to focus on the journey, not the destination.

The Culture Design Process

The culture design framework includes all aspects of the process: from mapping your current culture to defining the ideal culture.

This framework can be further broken down into five actionable stages which make up the culture design process:

  • Codify
  • Assess
  • Design
  • Experiment
  • Sense
the culture design process - mapping company culture by gustavo razzetti

Although these steps appear to be sequential, the design process is not always linear. At each stage in the process, you're likely to make new discoveries that require you to go back and repeat a previous step.

Also, the order of the steps will change depending on whether you're mapping the current culture, defining the ideal one, or addressing cultural tensions.

Let me first explain the overall approach and I will then share how you can adapt it to the different applications.

Step 1. Codify

What? During the codify phase, you want to map the current culture through multiple perspectives, including various departments and seniority levels.

Why? This step aims to paint a clear picture of the current culture, not the ideal one. You want to understand how people across the organization think and feel about the culture, not just the CEO.

How? You will conduct stakeholder interviews, review internal documents, facilitate Culture Design Canvas mapping sessions with different groups, and run a quantitative assessment to identify which type of culture your organization has.

Example: We are currently working with a client that's going through an M&A process. Our team is mapping the culture of both organizations to find common ground, identifying commonalities as well as incompatibilities.

Step 2. Assess

What? Based on what you've learned in the codify phase, this step will help you understand what's working and what's not.

Why? The culture design process is an evolution; rather than just fixing what's not working, you need to build from what's working. Also, this step will help you prioritize the areas in which to focus your design efforts. Do you want to focus on quick wins or long-term structural changes?

How? By answering a set of questions on this assessment template, you will be able to review each of the Culture Design Canvas building blocks. The results will help you define which ones you want to maintain, clarify, improve, or transform.

Example: For the same client I mentioned above, we are assessing the culture of both organizations to identify which elements should be preserved, eliminated, or created into the new, integrated culture.

Step 3. Design

What? With clear priorities, you'll now aim to identify solutions to improve or transform specific building blocks.

Why? The ideation phase gets you thinking outside the box and exploring new angles. By exploring new practices and ideas, you can take your culture in different directions.

How? During dedicated ideation workshops, you'll use a diverse set of tools and canvases to increase alignment, belonging, agility, and innovation. This addresses everything from developing a team purpose or defining your core values to making better decisions or having more effective meetings (and more).

Example: A few years ago, feedback was a bad word at Microsoft. Its "rank-and-yank" performance review process had turned feedback into torture rather than a gift that people wanted to receive. The organization ditched its review system and replaced it with a simple, regular practice called Perspectives – the word "feedback" is now avoided.

Step 4. Experiment

What? Having identified a couple of solutions, it's time to put them into practice in the form of "scaled-down" versions.

Why? Testing new ways of working or new tools at a small scale will help you save a lot of time. You will be able to define what works (or not) before scaling it to the broader organization.

How? Have different groups experiment with new practices to see what sticks. You can use the Culture Experiment Canvas to define specific details and metrics. This tool will also help you evaluate the outcome and define a course of action: discard, iterate, or scale.

Example: A leader from one of our clients struggled to get her team to make more decisions without waiting for her input or approval. We put together an experiment: she would skip the first weekly meeting of each month. Team members had to keep the ball rolling without the leader being part of the decision.

Step 5. Sense

What? The fifth step is about sensing cultural tensions – the gap between the system and people's expectations.

Why? In Holacracy, Brian Robertson defines tensions as "signals that can guide us." When something is not working, mistakes are repeated, or people feel frustrated, this manifests as a tension – it signals the gap between how things are and how they could be.

How? There are several methods to unearth cultural tensions before the gap widens, from conducting check-in rounds to facilitating the Stinky Fish Canvas. The Cultural Tensions Canvas helps sense the emotions, mindsets, and behaviors that get in the way.

Example: We run a meeting participation-style exercise with a large automotive company. The results showed that the large majority self-identified as both extroverts and talk-to-think people. However, when digging deeper, we uncovered that most people were pretending to be someone they were not – they were behaving according to the CEO's expectations, not their preferences.

Three Key Ways to Apply Culture Design

The fantastic thing about the five-stage process of culture design is that it systematizes an approach that can be adapted to specific needs.

Let's review how you can adapt it to the three most common applications of culture design: mapping the current culture, designing the future culture, and addressing cultural tensions.

1. Map the Current Culture

Before defining where you want to go, you need to understand where you are. Mapping your current culture is a critical first step. You want to avoid jumping into the design phase before understanding your real culture.

This phase requires two different mindsets. First, you need to think like an anthropologist to map the real culture – observe and understand without judging. You want to map the real culture as viewed by various groups of employees (sales, finance, product management, senior leadership, etc.). It doesn't matter if the leader has a different perspective or if you, as a facilitator, don't like the existing culture.

Second, assessing each of the building blocks requires thinking like a detective: ask the right questions, challenge assumptions, and connect the dots.

2. Define the Ideal Culture

Moving your culture from the current to ideal state requires both creativity and a trial-and-error approach.

The design step is about creating new practices to take your culture to the next level – from ritual design or building a culture of feedback to hosting more productive meetings or accelerating decision-making. If you need some inspiration, review these 12 organizations with powerful workplace cultures.

Designing your ideal culture requires experimenting, sensing people's reactions to the new practices, codifying those that stick, and incorporating them into your 'official' culture.

design future culture mapping process

3. Solve Cultural Tensions

This third application of culture design is about taking care of your culture on a regular basis. Your company culture is anything but static. Nurturing your organization culture is a never-ending job.

Cultural tensions come and go, affecting how your team performs. Some are external, like the pandemic that accelerated hybrid workplaces. Others are caused by internal disruptions such as M&A, change of leadership, or a new business strategy.

Sense the tensions. Design new solutions and run experiments to see what happens. Codify the new practices that are worth adopting.

Culture Mapping Accelerates the Success of Your Organization

Culture design brings clarity, alignment, and excitement – it facilitates change and improvement through meaningful conversations. Mapping your company culture requires a method and expert facilitation. Nothing should be off-limits when it comes to understanding what's getting in people's way.

Here at Fearless Culture, we not only teach culture design at our programs, but also consult with organizations to facilitate culture mapping and design sessions.

Ironically, people are often more honest with us, complete strangers, than with their managers. Our outsider perspective makes people feel safe to be candid, address what everyone is thinking but no one is saying, and experiment with new mindsets and behaviors.

For more information about Culture Mapping, contact us or check out the additional resources below:

More about the Culture Design Canvas – a tool for mapping and designing your workplace culture.

Subscribe to the Fearless Culture weekly newsletter for more tips, techniques, tools, and canvases.

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