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The Culture Design Process: How to Map, Assess, and Build A Strong Workplace Culture

The process of mapping, assessing, and designing your team culture is not only a fascinating and unique experience. It also helps align leaders and teams.

By Gustavo Razzetti

October 13, 2022

The process and tools you need to improve your team culture

Research shows that a strong workplace culture is critical to creating a sense of belonging and increasing retention, quality of work, and employee Net Promoter Scores (eNPS). Every leader knows that culture matters. However, many don't dedicate sufficient time to working on their culture. According to a study, CEOs only spend an average of 6% of their time with rank and file employees – they're detached from the actual organization's culture.

Culture design requires intentionality. Leaders need to understand that culture doesn't just happen organically; it requires discipline, a process, and effort. They need to allocate the right resources and be willing to invest more time in bringing their culture to life.

In this post, I explain the principles of culture design and the process, key tools, and phases involved in a culture design process. I will share an overview of the methodology we use at Fearless Culture, both when consulting clients as well as training facilitators and consultants.

You can apply the principles and approach to design both your team and company culture.

Workplace Culture Design: What It Is and Why It Matters

You have two choices to build your company culture: by design or by chance. Either you're relentlessly intentional about what type of culture you want or it will emerge in any direction.

Design doesn't mean you control culture but intentionally create the right conditions for people to do their best work.

Zappos' founder Tony Hsieh believed his job as CEO was to be "the architect of the greenhouse." Rather than being the plant others aspired to be, he created the right conditions for everyone to bloom.

Culture design is not about imposing an artificial culture but setting the environment so people can thrive. You take care of the soil, hire fertile talent, and then let them grow in the right direction.

Designing your workplace culture is not a one-off but an iterative process. Let me explain why.

Culture is not something to be fixed but an ongoing challenge. Every time you improve something, other aspects of your culture will need your attention. That's why I like to call culture a wicked problem.

A wicked problem is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing conditions. Improving your culture requires preserving the essence of what you stand for, adopting new practices, and replacing old standards with new ones. You never know which new practices will stick – or not.

The chart above captures the two key parts of every culture design process:

• Map the current culture

• Define the ideal culture

Ask a number of your employees to choose three words they'd use to describe your organization's culture to a friend. I use this exercise to get a first sense of how people experience the real culture. Often, results are not aligned. However, what matters most is how people experience the culture. The words employees select reveal the topics that matter most to them.  

Usually, senior executives have a distorted view of the company culture. They confuse the ideal state with the current state. That's because executives focus on how they'd like the culture to be rather than what it actually is.

Similarly, many companies or teams want to jump into designing the future without clearly understanding where they are today. That's why it's critical not to confuse the two different areas.

Mapping the current culture is about putting the culture into words (codifying it) and assessing what's working – or not. Defining the ideal culture is about setting a clear direction and what needs to happen. It involves designing the future state, testing new ways of working (experiments), and sensing what's working or not. Successful experiments will become part of the culture and be codified as part of the actual state.

The process is never-ending one, thus the infinite shape. Once you make progress, that becomes your new current state.

The Workplace Culture Design Toolkit

We use two key tools along the culture design journey: the Culture Identity Assessment Tool and the Culture Design Canvas.

The first provides a macro perspective of the type of culture your organization has/wants and the latter helps design the different elements – it double-clicks on each building block.

The Culture Identity Assessment Tool (CIAT) helps you zoom out and understand the type of culture you have: Tribal, Fearful, Aggressive, or Fearless. Each has different characteristics – when played to the extreme, all have flaws. The goal is to define your primary type of culture and the one that complements or balances it.

The Culture Design Canvas allows you to zoom in, understanding the different elements and how they contribute to building the overall type of culture. The CDC, for short, has 10 building blocks organized into three sections: the Core, the Emotional Culture, and the Functional Culture.

The Core is the foundation of your culture. It defines the long-term vision – what your company stands for. The core includes the following building blocks: Purpose, Core Values, Priorities, and Behaviors You Reward and Punish. This section drives alignment.

The Emotional Culture captures how people feel about their organization, job, colleagues, and culture. It includes Psychological Safety, Feedback, and Team Rituals. Emotional culture drives a sense of belonging – it's the glue that holds people together.

The Functional Culture captures how people operate, collaborate, and make decisions. It contains three building blocks: Decision-Making, Meetings (including asynchronous collaboration), and Norms and Rules. Functional culture defines organizational agility – the ability to adapt, iterate, and move fast.

Key Phases of the Culture Design Process

Okay, so how does this work? What does it mean in terms of process and timeline?

The graph below captures the four critical phases of the culture design journey:

1. Discovery

2. Culture Mapping

3. Culture Assessment

4. Culture Design

1. Discovery Phase

This is the typical kick-off phase of any design project. It levels the playing field by ensuring the consultant or facilitator starts with the same knowledge as the client. Its goal is to align all key stakeholders regarding expectations, timings, deliverables, effort, and outcomes.

The discovery phase of the culture design process includes reviewing existing HR or culture documents and employee surveys, as well as conducting interviews with key stakeholders. Usually, I like to add an activity to get a pulse from employees. It could be a short survey or the Uncover the Stinky Fish Canvas – this activity sparks wonderful conversations and helps prepare the consultant for the next phase.

“Culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.” - Brian Chesky, Airbnb CEO

This phase is heavy on the facilitator and requires little effort from the client. It usually involves the CHRO or Culture Officer, plus the executives that will be part of the stakeholder interviews. If the Stinky Fish is used, employees will also need to dedicate some time.

2. Culture Mapping Phase

This phase is about understanding the current culture through multiple lenses. The goal is to codify the real culture, not the official one. We want to comprehend how people experience their company's culture, not what their leaders tell them.

For the culture mapping phase, we use the two tools described above.

The CIAT is a quantitative tool that uses a multiple-choice survey with 21 questions to help map the primary and secondary types of culture. It provides a snapshot of the overall identity and can be broken down by level, department, or geography. If the company or team is too small or the budget is an issue, you can do a qualitative version of this analysis.

On a parallel path, we use the Culture Design Canvas to map the different blocks. Once again, we want to capture the reality, not the official culture.

For example, we don't ask people to recite the company values but to explain what they mean to them, how they shape their work, and the role they play (if any). This qualitative approach helps us dig deeper into each component of culture.

To have a fair representation, we run different sessions with members from various groups of the organization. We want to capture similarities, nuances, and contradictions.

We usually use color coding to identify results from each group. When we consolidate results, one color indicates commonalities across groups and others denote unique insights from a particular group.

This phase requires more participation from the organization. Every employee is invited to answer the CIAT survey (15-20 minutes to complete it). Additionally, those selected to be part of the culture mapping session must allocate time to that group activity (2-3 hours per workshop).

People love being part of the mapping sessions. They feel that their voices matter and enjoy talking about their culture. The conversation encourages people to reflect on what drives their work and what the company stands for. Most importantly, it's a cathartic experience that inspires people to improve the culture – they leave the sessions wanting to take action.

3. Culture Assessment Phase

After running all the culture mapping sessions, the next step is consolidating the results in one map.

The assessment includes two parts: sharing the current type of culture and an evaluation of each of the building blocks of the canvas.

The CIAT report specifies the dominant and secondary types of culture. In some organizations, these are easy to determine. In other cases, the culture is so unclear that it lacks a dominant or secondary culture. Either way, the results are the starting point to define where the culture is and where we want to take it.

We usually facilitate a working session to debrief the results. I like to invite people to reflect on which culture they thrive in and which they think their organization has before sharing the results. It invites people to reflect on the role of culture and address the gaps between expectations and reality.

To define the 'ideal' culture, participants work on the three elements of culture: - the core, the emotional culture, and the functional culture and determine which type of culture (aggressive, fearful, tribal, or fearless) should drive each. The sum of all parts delineates the desired dominant and secondary culture.

As part of the workshop, we also share the results of the consolidated mapping sessions. We share the key themes, what's working, areas for improvement, and what's broken – block by block.

In this case, yellow post-its indicate common themes across groups while the other colors can help track specific comments and the group that brought them up.

The summary includes a precise categorization per block that allows leaders to understand the big picture and the action required. It presents a clear snapshot of the things that the company needs to maintain (or do nothing), clarify (minor adjustments, usually making things easier to understand), improve (blocks that require work and changes), or transform (areas that are in terrible shape and demand a major intervention).

This phase involves the key leaders of the company who are part of the debrief and also work on defining the ideal culture.  

4. Culture Design Phase

Once the team is aligned on the culture they want and which areas need to be addressed, it's time to move to the design phase.

I strongly recommend avoiding trying to solve everything at once. We often tackle the design one section at a time (i.e., we focus on the core and revisit purpose, values, etc.) or one block in particular. It can become too confusing for people to digest a lot of new practices, but trying to change everything at once is why most change initiatives fail.

For the design of each building block (meetings, rituals, priorities, etc.), we use a set of specific tools that allow everyone to zoom in deeper into each area.

The duration of the sessions depends on many factors: the team's productivity (some teams roll and others get stuck in overthinking), if it's remote or in-person, the complexity of the issue at hand, the openness of the leadership team, and the expertise of the facilitator.

Just as an indicator, you can tackle the core in an 8-hour session, but it will require a lot of energy, focus, and effective facilitation.

Who participates in the design phase? We usually recommend the client builds a team that will lead the culture design phase, including the CEO and key executives from different areas. It's also vital to include people who are NOT part of the executive team and who can bring in the employee perspective and fresh thinking.

5. Experimentation Phase

Once you've identified a couple of solutions, it's time to put them into practice in the form of "scaled-down" experiments. Before rolling out a new feedback practice, for example, it's better to test it on a small scale and see what happens.

The experimentation phase includes getting feedback from people before implementing something like new values. It's also an opportunity to invite people to reflect on how they can bring the new values to life.

The experiment results will determine if the solution needs to be discarded, iterated, or adopted. We use the Culture Experiment Canvas to design how the solution will be tested, specifying clear metrics.

This phase involves those leading the experiment and team members who will be part of it. It's recommended to run a couple of experiments in parallel paths. For example, if you're looking for new team rituals, design two or three, test them in different groups, and see which one gets the best results.

Design a Company Culture that Accelerates Success

Culture design is about intentionally crafting the environment that will help people do the best work of their lives. The process of mapping, assessing, and designing your team culture is not only a fascinating and unique experience but also helps align leaders and teams in the right direction.

The process of culture design is people-centric and easy to facilitate and be part of. However, with simplicity comes challenges. It's not about completing all the steps and filling the canvases with nice-looking sticky notes, but arriving at meaningful, high-quality solutions.

Don't embark on the process if you're not ready to aim for quality of input and outcome.

Quality of input is defined by following the method but, most importantly, by the quality of participants, decision-makers, and facilitators. It requires investing time, money, and being open to having tough conversations.

The agenda determines the quality of the outcome: building the culture the company needs, not what would please people, the CEO, or the consultants. Be ready to challenge each other. Have a facilitator that's experienced with the process and confident navigating uncertainty, knowing when to push back and when to move on. Most importantly, give the facilitator – external or internal – the autonomy to make decisions and lead the conversation.

People usually lower the bar when they fall in love with their own ideas or start to feel tired. Be ready to push back, but also know when to stop. The session's goal is not to arrive at the final product but at an almost-finished product. It requires iteration and wordsmithing to accomplish great results. You can take care of that afterward.

Perfect the high-quality outcome after the workshop. Seeking perfect results could either get your team stuck or rush everyone to finish the project before the result is there. Neither scenario is ideal. Finding the balance between progress and quality is difficult but vital. End the session with a high-quality outcome.

I hope you enjoyed the approach and feel excited about mapping, assessing, or designing your company or team culture.

Here are three options to help you on your journey.

Option 1: If you need help during your culture design process, please schedule a free consultation call to discuss your needs and how we can help you.  

Option 2: Sign up for the Culture Design Masterclass and learn the principles of culture design and facilitation.

Option 3: Do it yourself, explore our over 500 posts on culture with insights, tools, and facilitation guides.

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