How would you behave if you really meant the things that it says on the plaque on the wall? That’s the question I posed to a group of senior leaders in a high growth organization yesterday. The conversation was part of a program to define their cultural identity after bringing together multiple legacy organizations. It’s a really powerful exercise, so I thought I’d share it so you can “try it at home.”

Set Up

The exercise is exquisitely simple.

Step 1: Make one sheet (or poster) for each of the aspects of your culture or values.

Step 2: Label the top two-thirds of the sheet as “Individual Behaviors” and divide that section into three columns.

Step 3: Label those columns “With our Customers,” “Across Teams,” and “As a Leader.” (Note: You don’t have to use exactly those labels, you can use “With People Outside the Organization” instead of “With Customers” or “Inside our Team” instead of “As a Leader.”)

Step 4: Label the bottom third of the sheet with the heading “Organizational Supports.”


Individual Behaviors

Then get to work. Take one sheet at a time and ask people to describe as many behaviors as possible that would demonstrate that aspect of the culture. If the value is “Customer First,” ask for examples of what employees could do to show that they put the customer first. An example in the “with the customer” column might be, “suggest ways that the customer can achieve their goals more cost effectively.” In the “across teams” category, an example might be “proactively share information about customers to identify opportunities for enhanced customer service.”

I warn you, when you first dive into the conversation, it’s going to stay pretty safe and comfy. You might hear wishy-washy, high-level, motherhood-and-apple-pie stuff like “show respect,” or “behave fairly.” Statements like those are just as useless as the original descriptors. If someone says, “show respect,” ask “What would that look like?” “Where would I see someone showing respect?” “What would people do differently if there was more respect around here?” “Give me an example of someone being disrespectful.”

After a while, encourage everyone to complete the sentence, “If we really meant it, we’d have to…” Suss out the uncomfortable territory until someone finally says “are we really prepared to…”  You’ll know you’re getting to the good stuff when people start dropping eye contact, shifting from foot to foot, and twiddling their pens with nervous energy.

Yesterday, we did this exercise as a breakout session, with groups of 4 or 5 leaders each working on a single category. I asked each group to share back one behavior that they thought was the most interesting, provocative, and exemplary of what living up to the cultural identity would require. Boy did they do a great job. They pushed the boundaries exactly how I had hoped.

The group that was asked to bring to life the value of “Solutions Driven,” chose “break the rules” as their behavior to share. They argued that if the organization really valued the solution over the process that employees should be able to break the rules that are barriers to coming up with solutions. That raised a few eyebrows! It also started a great conversation about how the organization’s growth was being accompanied with new layers of process and policy and that some of those rules were making it harder to focus on the solution. After a great conversation, they agreed that the expectation would be that employees “question any rules that get in the way of a solution.” What a powerful expectation to embed in your culture.

Organizational Supports

I’ve ignored the final part of the exercise because it’s so much less important than the section on individual behavior. As you are completing the top half of the sheet, occasionally, issues will come up that go beyond an individual’s control and get into the realm of organizational structures, processes, and resources. When that happens, document the changes that would support the culture you’re aspiring to on the bottom third of the page.

In one breakout group yesterday, the team was working on the idea of Customer Partnership. They talked about how the organizational structure made it difficult to truly partner with their customers. They recommended a change to how the shared service functions were aligned to the business units that would make customer partnership easier.

Other examples of organizational supports could include changes to metrics or rewards to better align with the behaviors you want to encourage, addition of new technologies or systems, or elimination of out-dated rules that no longer reflect the desired culture.

At the end of the exercise, you will have gone from a nice set of words on the wall to a clear set of expectations of the behaviors that are (and are not) acceptable in your organization. The culture will cease to be a nebulous set of concepts and start to be a practical guide that helps employees make decisions in the moment. Everyone will be clear that “we really mean it!”

Further Reading

Culture is the Cheapest Thing to Change

Killing your Busy Culture

How to Change a Teammate’s Bad Behavior

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