Can You Say What Your Culture Is? revamp_odeqd23 September 11, 2012

Can You Say What Your Culture Is?

We have been using the Harvard Business Review classic “Can you say what your strategy is?” lately when facilitating strategy retreats with leadership teams. The article’s authors challenge leaders to describe their strategy in 35 words or less. Try for yourself: You will rarely see a very aligned set of responses with this simple and yet powerful exercise.

Inspired by seeing tremendously clarifying and poignant discussions emerge, we applied the same idea to team culture. High-performance teams make all the difference for organizations to stay ahead of their competition. But what defines the culture of high-performing teams? How do you get there?

Well, start with clarity. Frances Frei and Anne Morriss were researching patterns among organizations with highly effective service cultures. One of the crucial patterns they found was that in outperforming companies leaders knew exactly what kind of a culture they wanted to build, and the critical role it played in achieving their performance objectives.

Culture, says a popular vernacular, tells people what to do when no one tells them what to do. Culture, add Frei and Morriss, “guides discretionary effort”. As leaders, then, our job is to define culture. In my experience, few would disagree – fewer,though, even do the work.

Here is your challenge:

  • Imagine defining culture as a set of specific guidelines for situations too vast and diverse to be defined. Your definition may differ depending on whether your frame of reference is the organization or a team.
  • Try starting with 35 words or less. Can you say what culture is?
  • Now use a 100 words, get more specific in a way that can guide behavior.

To the day, one of the benchmarks for defining culture well are Zappos Family Values:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  • Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble

If you count the words you will get 57.