Awesome cultures seem to be the exception, not the rule. That means most of us are on the outside, looking in – wishing that we had an awesome culture like Zappos, Netflix, or the organization next door that keeps making the “best places to work” list. So when we can find the time, we work on our culture. We might try to be more agile, or boost innovation, or encourage more transparency. But we rarely make enough progress to make it to the “awesome” category.
I think I know why that is, and it actually has very little to do (initially anyway) with things like agility, innovation, or transparency. There are three fundamental mistakes that most organizations make when it comes to improving culture, and until you can address these three challenges, your culture efforts are bound to disappoint.
1. You don’t understand your culture.
This sounds sort of boring, but I think it’s profoundly true: Very few people actually understand what their culture really is. They have a vague sense of what it is, and they can ascribe a handful of words to it – maybe through core values or something like that. But they don’t understand it. They don’t know how it works. They don’t know how their people actually experience it. They don’t see the inner contradictions in the culture that play out every day in the workplace. They don’t see the impact that culture is having on technology usage or internal communication.
Understanding your culture (deeply and broadly) is a requisite first step to making it awesome, yet most leaders skip it and jump right to defining their “ideal culture.” That’s not the way this process works: You already have a culture. You’re changing it, not creating a brand new one. So you have be able to show people what it is that you’re changing, or they won’t be able to get behind the change.
2. You aren’t ranking the components of your culture.
The second biggest cultural challenge I see in organizations is an inability or reluctance to consciously choose which parts of the culture are more important than others. I think this stems from the fact that most people view culture work as a kind of one-off exercise: We do the work to define our culture, we put posters on the wall, and we’re done.
Again, that’s not how culture works. Yes, all your values are important, but your organization is constantly in motion towards its objectives, and your culture is constantly impacting that motion – sometimes boosting you forward, but in other ways holding you back. That means some parts of your culture will be pushing or pulling at a higher level – which means they are more important, at least for now.
Once you have your values ranked, you reinforce the ones that are propelling you forward, and you fix the ones that are holding you back. Some components may stay on top of that list pretty much constantly, and others may come and go depending on what’s going on in your operating environment. You should always have an up-to-date ranking.
3. You won’t commit to the hard work of growing your culture.
The third primary challenge around culture is simple: We just don’t know how to do it – that is, how to craft and sustain an awesome culture on an ongoing basis. We might be good at the big ideas (like core values), but we don’t know how to turn those ideas into reality, or sustain them over time.
Remember that the Latin root for the word “culture” means “to grow,” as in agriculture. You’re not building something, but growing it, which requires constant tending: Changing internal processes to make sure they help move the culture in the direction of the priorities you’ve ranked; adjusting to deal with the unintended consequences of those new processes; then re-assessing those priorities, and starting over again. Welcome to culture management!
The good news is, these three challenges are not hard to overcome. That’s precisely what we do in our consulting work, and it usually takes no more than six months to turn things around and start down the path of growing and sustaining a more awesome culture. But until you address these three primary challenges, you’ll be wasting your time.
Jamie Notter is cofounder and culture consultant at Propel.
This story originally appeared in a slightly different form on LinkedIn.