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How to Map Your Company Culture with the Culture Canvas Tool

A step-by-step guide to use the culture canvas tool to map your current culture across different teams and areas of your company.

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 9, 2020

A step-by-step guide to map your current culture, identify gaps among different groups, assess the building blocks, and prioritize the course of action.

There are three key ways to use the Culture DesignCanvas: to map an existing culture, design a future one, or continually nurture your workplace culture.

Mapping your current company culture is a crucial first step before designing the desired state. You must understand what your company really stands for, what is and isn't working, before defining where you want togo.

"I've always been fascinated by maps and cartography. A map tells you where you've been, where you are, and where you're going — in a sense it's three tenses in one."
― Peter Greenaway, filmmaker

The exercise of mapping the company culture is challenging. It requires capturing the real one, not the official culture or how a few perceive it. To successfully map your current culture, you must consider multiple perspectives, not just the CEO's.

In this post, I will share the basic process, how to assemble the team, defining the different groups that will map the culture, identifying gaps, and assessing each of the building blocks of the CultureDesign Canvas.

Build a Diverse Team

Before the session, build your dream team. Assembling the right group of people is crucial to designing workplace culture.Participants should be diverse in seniority, tenure, business units represented, skills, and perspectives.

There are three different teams to keep in mind:

1.  The culture design team that will lead the process, including the definition of goals, approach, timeline, and decision-making

2.  Those who will facilitate the culture mapping sessions

3.  The team members who will participate in the different mapping sessions

Let me explain the roles and responsibilities of each.

1. Core Culture Team:

This team is responsible for the strategy and implementation of the overall culture design process – from mapping to designing the future state. The responsibility of the culture design project shouldn't be limited to the usual suspects. You want to explore the culture through a broader perspective; avoid the typical culture committee composed of a couple of HR folks, the CEO, and two trusted executives.

The ideal size of the team is 5-7 members. This makes it easier to make decisions, move faster, and – above all – avoid group thinking. Diversity of thought and perspectives is crucial to avoid biases.Usually senior executives confuse the culture they see with the overall culture; they also tend to confuse the culture they want to build – the ideal one – with the actual reality of the organization.

Selecting the team members is about seeking to explore how different groups see the organization. Aim for extreme perspectives in terms of tenure, seniority, background, and functional areas. This will become even more critical when the team moves to designing the future state; crafting the desired culture requires input and ideas from people representing multiple areas.

However, I always recommend keeping the core team small; you can always seed additional participants to specific sessions to ensure diversity of thought.

2. Facilitation Team:

The Facilitation Team will be charged with designing and facilitating the respective work sessions, including the pre-work, analysis of outcomes, and recommendations. Again, aim for diverse perspectives in terms of tenure, seniority, background, and functional areas. 

The size of this team will be determined by how many mapping sessions you will run and the expected timeline. The facilitators can be also part of the core team, but this isn't mandatory. However, they need to work in close contact while maintaining independence to avoid being influenced by the Core Team members.

The Culture Design Canvas is an easy to use tool, but mastering it takes time, training, and practice. I strongly recommend that you use certified facilitators who have not only been trained, but have done the work with other companies before doing it with yours.

Using external facilitators also brings more objectivity to the table and avoids power plays or the perception that internal facilitators could take sides.

3. Participants:

This third group corresponds to the team that will actually work on mapping the current company culture. They don't have a say on the process or make decisions, but play a key role by providing their impressions of what the real company culture is all about.

Diversity is crucial here, too. You want a realistic representation of the different perspectives. Defining how many groups are needed and their composition is both art and science; there's no rule, but guiding principles. Each project has its own requirements. The nature of your company's culture challenge will help you answer that question.

How to Define the Right Participants to Map Your Culture

As a rule of thumb, try to keep the amount of groups to the minimum – aim for insights, not perfection.

The Culture Design Canvas was created under the principles of human-centered design, which encourages uncovering insights from users with diverse perspectives. When it comes to culture, the end users are actually your employees.

Extreme users make things more interesting; they usually provide insights that shed light on particular problems which affect them, but can be beneficial to others, too.

When the creator of OXO's Good Grips was cooking with his wife, he realized that the potato peeler was hurting her hands. Like many others suffering from arthritis, regular cooking utensils are hard to manipulate. Inspired by this extreme user, Sam Farber designed a new line of kitchen tools with a larger, more comfortable grip. The new design was not only a success among those suffering from arthritis, but also with every home cook looking for amore comfortable utensil.

The above example captures the power of tapping into extreme users: they present a unique insight that helps provide better solutions for everyone. Take the case of new hires; they have fresh eyes and see things that long-standing employees don't.

When designing the right participant teams, look for representation, but also uncover the gaps. Start by identifying your extreme users.

An easy way to get started is to assemble a team ofC-level executives, one or two with mid-level executives, and a couple with a broader representation of employees. It's important to ensure that each individual team is diverse, per se, too.

If your company has been in business for a few decades, you should have one group with people with longer tenure and one with recent hires (less than 12 months at the company). If your culture is a tribal one, it's important to compare results between loyalists versus cynics/ detractors.

I worked with a healthcare client that had acquired two other companies in the past 3 years. When selecting the different groups, we wanted to capture both subcultures and how they were feeding off each other –or not.

For international companies, it's vital that you facilitate at least one session with each key country to compare how the culture fares across offices. When you have a dominant culture, map that one and compare it to other subcultures. For example, when working with a business-to-business financial institution that had a strong HQ in the US, our team mapped that culture and compared how their two key regions (Latin America and Europe) perceived it.

The above are just examples. As I mentioned before, the nature of your cultural challenges should dictate the different groups' composition, as well as how many. Aim to uncover the gaps, but don't overdo it.

Defining the different teams' composition is usually managed by skilled facilitators, especially external ones. However, the CoreCulture Team should also contribute and, most importantly, approve the approach to be used.

The Pre-Work

Preparing ahead of the sessions is critical not only to maximize the live time with participants, but also to successfully set up the room.

The job of the facilitator starts by gathering all relevant information and documents that capture the "official culture": company purpose and values, culture/ employee engagement surveys, company rules and policies, etc.

Assign some pre-work exercises that can then be used at the beginning of the session, either as an ice-breaker or to focus the conversation. Make sure people read an introductory article about the Culture Design Canvas, check some of the examples, and watch this intro video prior to the session.

You can also share some of the "official culture" documents so people can familiarize themselves. However, it's important to ensure that those materials don't cloud people's perceptions. Mapping the culture means capturing what people think, feel, or say – not what's written in a document.

How to Facilitate a Culture Mapping Session

Ideally, if time permits, provide participants with some time to reflect on each of the building blocks and capture their thoughts on sticky notes – either physically or in Mural or Miro. Ask them to keep their notes to themselves, for now, to avoid influencing others.

Once everyone is done, start working together on each of the building blocks, one at a time.

The team should first complete the Core in the following order: Purpose, Core Values, Priorities, and Behaviors that are rewarded and punished. Then move to the Emotional Culture, from bottom to top: Psychological Safety, Feedback, and Rituals. Lastly, work on the FunctionalCulture: Norms & Rules, Meetings, and Decision-Making.

Create a first draft incorporating contradictions and things that are unclear. Revisit the entire canvas, one block at a time, looking for common ground. Avoid forcing consensus; remember that extreme users, although they are a minority, tend to bring up issues that other people miss.

Remember that mapping the current culture requires capturing the actual one through the eyes of people.

Challenge the formal culture documents to see who actually agrees with them, or not. For example, do they remember all the core values? Is leadership behavior aligned with the company purpose? Are there unwritten rules that offset written policies or norms?

To learn more about how to facilitate each block, read this article.

Estimated time per session: 3 hours.

Team size: 5-12 participants.

If the group size is 8 or more, it's better to work on two subgroups with one facilitator each. Once each small group creates their first draft, bring everyone back together and integrate both versions into one.

Consolidating the Different Culture Maps

Once you have facilitated the different groups, the next step is consolidating them all and identifying similarities and commonalities. Identifying the gaps between the various groups will tell you a lot about the challenges ahead.

When working with large companies which require facilitating multiple sessions, I use this Mural template. There are multipleCulture Design Canvases – each has sticky notes in a different color to differentiate it from the rest. Once you consolidate all the results in one canvas, you can compare different ideas and see which ones are coming from which group. 

As you can see on the image below, the color coding makes it easier to identify the different groups.

Facilitation tips:

·  Don't forget to add the name of the team to each canvas (and date)

·  Copy/ paste the sticky notes so you can keep the original canvas intact, in case you need to share or get back to them if something went wrong when consolidating them

·  Use a different color to capture the commonalities or areas where most teams' input is aligned

·  The consolidation exercise should be run by a small group, rather than by just one person, to avoid bias.

·  Avoid dismissing gaps or contradictions because they're uncomfortable or don't seem to make sense. Ask why. Try to understand what's driving the gap rather than dismiss inconsistencies.

Once you've finished consolidating the canvases, it's time to assess your current company culture.

Assessing Each Building Block of Your Culture Map

Now it's time to review and asses your consolidated canvas: make sure it's clear, consistent, and simple.

Start by finding a theme – one line that defines your current company culture. As you're mapping the actual state, the theme should represent the reality, so it could be positive, negative, or neutral.

For example, Netflix has a culture of freedom and responsibility. Airbnb has a culture where everyone feels they belong anywhere.

Now assess each building block, following the same order you used to map the culture.

There are four categories I recommend using to assess each block:

·  Maintain: Which blocks are working and need no change?

·  Clarify: Which blocks can be simplified or better communicated?

·  Improve: Which blocks have areas of opportunity?

·  Transform: Which blocks are critical condition and need deep intervention?

Let me share an example based on an actual client project (it's slightly modified to be made public).

Maintain: The company purpose was clear and engaging; people not only understood it, but also used it to guide their behavior.

Clarify: The company had a travel policy that encouraged people to "use the average, not the most expensive hotel or airfare." Lately on, many executives interpreted this as choosing the cheapest option, not a cost-effective one. They were thus sending employees to hotels that were low quality or even unsafe in some cases. The policy was rewritten to clarify this.


Values: The organization had seven values and most people couldn't remember more than three or four. Afterward, we ran a company-wide exercise to streamline the number of values, focusing on the ones that were more relevant to the employees.

Meetings: People had very engaging and productive meetings, but were sloppy when it came to capturing and distributing agreements among participants. We coached the team to solve this issue.


Psychological Safety: Traditionally, the organization was perceived as a safe environment that encouraged participation. However, after a change of leadership, people felt intimidated, tenure was no longer respected, and long-standing employees felt their opinions were dismissed.

Turning this around become a key priority for the culture design phase.

Decision Making: As a consequence of the change of management, a very collaborative and transparent culture was being replaced by more obscure and top-down practices. While in the past senior executives were not only informed, but also involved in strategic decisions, the new transformation process was a complete secret. The new leader managed it with an external consultant, which then shared key decisions with the entire organization without providing a why or any space for questions.

This step completes the culture mapping process before jumping into designing the desired culture. The full culture mapping process is included in the How to Map Your Current Company Culture - Mural template.

You cannot address all of your cultural challenges at the same time. Once you've assessed all building blocks, prioritize your intervention. You can start by focusing on quick wins, or solving more pressing issues that will take longer to resolve

Checklist to help you review your culture map:

·  What does your organizational culture stand for?Is it simple and clear?

·  Is your company's purpose ambitious, yet attainable?

·  Are your values and purpose serving others, or self-serving?

·  Does your organizational culture feel difficult to replicate? Is it a competitive advantage?

·  Are all the elements aligned with the values and purpose?

·  Is your culture psychologically safe?

·  Are authority and decision-making clear and distributed?

·  Do the behaviors and values align?

·  Is your company's meeting culture helping or hindering collaboration and productivity?

Mapping Company Culture with a Visual Tool – Key Takeaways

The purpose of mapping your current company culture is to see what your company stands for through the lens of the broader organization. It's not meant to reflect how the CEO perceives the culture, but how regular people see it. 

The Culture Design Canvas helps map and visualize the company culture, assessing commonalities and differences among different groups. Your company challenges will help you define the types of groups you must assemble and how many. Don't overdo it.

Assembling the right team is essential to broadening perspectives during the process. Once you've mapped the culture, assess each of the building blocks, and define the course of action and priorities. Now you are ready to move on to the culture design phase.

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