3 Steps to Scaling Organizational Culture

Happy 1 What would it take for workplace culture to bring out the best in everyone – employees, customers, patrons, investors – in any organization or company of any kind? And what would it take to scale that as the organization grows?

These are critical questions for Creating the Future’s efforts to reinvent our organizational structure to accomplish our mission. As our leadership and decision-making become more movement-like and distributed, what will it take for us to be confident that the culture that got us this far does not get lost or diluted in all that growth and scale?

What is organizational culture? And what does it mean to scale that?
Let’s start with some definitions.

In organizations as in societies, culture is the ongoing process of transforming what is most important to a group into decisions, actions and behaviors. It is the personification of what the group values most, as evidenced in every decision and action taken on behalf of that group.

The issue of scaling culture within an organization arises in all sorts of settings – from mergers and partnerships to the growth of an organization like Creating the Future, from its infancy to adulthood. Scaling culture is therefore about building intentional frameworks to ensure that the culture that led to the organization’s initial success is still evident when the group is 2 or 3 or 5,000 times its original size.

Happy 2Culture in Practice
For Creating the Future, this issue of scaling our culture is critical, because our whole reason for being is to create a world whose culture brings out the best in people. If we can’t model that as we grow, then how will we scale that culture of potential and compassion to the whole world?

But it’s not just us. In a world where businesses of all kinds care about their impact in the world, this is an issue of concern for start-up and scale-up companies of all kinds. And the reasons for that are based on pure logic: When workplace culture brings out the best in people, everything works better. Studies show repeatedly that happy employees are more productive, create happier customers and a healthier bottom line (however one defines bottom line). Not to mention that the work is simply more fun!

Just the opposite happens in workplaces where culture does not bring out the best in people, or even brings out their worst. Unhappy, disgruntled employees are always looking over their shoulder. There’s turnover from top to bottom. In environments like this, we’ve all experienced “customer service representatives” who genuinely felt bad about not being allowed to make us happy. Customers leave if they can, and if they have no choice but to stay, they complain about that lack of choice.

In those organizations, employees and customers all know that people are considered replaceable vs. the only thing that matters. And lest you believe this is limited to the corporate world, guess again.

In The Pollyanna Principles, I tell the story of an organization who asked for help with “morale,” because they had a consistent annual turnover of 125% (that’s not a typo). When I speak at conferences, I often reference the domestic violence organization that was so abusive to their staff that the workers organized a union. Sadly the list of organizations of all kinds, whose culture brings out the worst in everyone they encounter, is long and does not discriminate by industry.

The difference between organizations where culture is a joyful guide to doing good things together, and organizations where employees can’t wait to find another job (or stay for the money but hate the work) is not that people are mean in one place and nice in another. The difference is actually rooted in our brain mechanics, because organizations are nothing more than groups of people, guided to action by their physiology.

Happy 3Brain Science and Organizational Culture
We humans are built to survive first, and do higher level thinking later.

In humans, our brains’ powerful fight-or-flight command center is located at the base of the spinal cord, closest to the rest of the body, for quick action when we are in danger. In contrast, the part of the brain that controls reason and creativity and wisdom is farthest away from that nerve center. Once we’re not in danger, we can reach forward to the frontal lobe to do the more advanced calculations that will allow us to strategize and plan.

Our frontal lobe provides humans with the capacity to override and sometimes even bypass that first instinct. But once those fear mechanisms are triggered, overriding those reactive instincts requires steadfast intention, repeatedly facing our fears and talking them down from the ledge.

When we feel safe, nurtured, secure, assured, that fear mechanism is not triggered at all, and our brains can go straight to feeling creative and possible.

Here’s what that means for organizations: Unless we mindfully build and scale cultural systems intended to bring out the best in everyone the organization encounters, that culture will default to systems rooted in survival and suspicion, scarcity and competition.

The good news is that it is absolutely possible to build, scale and sustain organizational culture that brings out the best in people. And the better news is that there is a repeatable path that can lead any organization to that result.

What does it take to build and scale people-centered organizational culture?
To build cultural systems that bypass our natural fear mechanisms, the key is intentionality and diligence. That begins with being clear about the “why” of our work, beyond making money, because money is never an ends unto itself, it is only a means to something else. We want money so that we can ________ and ________ and ___________. The blanks are up to each of us to fill in, but there are always blanks, because money is only useful when we are using it to serve some human purpose.

Step 1 So Step 1 is about clarity of purpose through the lens of people. (To understand more about the adage that “It’s always about the people, never about the thing,” read Catalytic Thinking: A Framework for Creating and Scaling Powerful Results.) 

Step 2Once we’re clear about our purpose, we can begin to imagine the environment that will create those results. That discussion (Step 2) will lead to a very different “values statement” than most of us have seen. Rather than a plaque in the lobby that says “Our values: Honesty, Integrity and Respect,” we might see a statement that says, “XYZ Industries is a place where you will always experience a real relationship, whether you are a customer, an employee or an investor.”

In real life, that might look like the “Make It Right” policy at Hilton’s Doubletree Hotels. Or it might look like Creating the Future’s commitment to bring out the best in everyone we encounter, through our Statement of Our Values in Action.

Step 3Which takes us to Step 3: the ongoing process of turning a group’s values into decisions, actions and behaviors (the definition that opened this article).

You now have a litmus test to know which actions and decisions are the right ones. When the Doubletree hotel says they will “make it right,” what might that look like at the reception desk or the pool? What will that mean when the toilet in your room overflows at 2am? And what might that look like at their own staff meetings?

When Creating the Future says our work is about bringing out the best in people, what will that look like when you attend a meeting for the first time? What will it feel like when you’re in one of our classes? What will our instructors expect from each other?

Happy 4Having those conversations will lead to policies and processes that are human rather than bureaucratic. And that is where the magic can happen, not just in start-up, but forever.

As Creating the Future begins restructuring away from being a hierarchical organization, and towards being a collection of people all marching towards the same mission, the questions embedded in these three steps will be the most important questions we can ask. As people swim up to our work, anywhere they encounter us around the world, how can they expect to feel? What can they expect to be assured of?

We know one thing for sure: It will feel like the practices of Catalytic Thinking in action. THAT will be our culture, scaled not just from 10 to 1,000 people, but far beyond any walls that might surround our organization. That is what we hope to scale to the world.

Photo credits: All Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons Licenses)
Happy child dancing: by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Happy man at beach: by rudyanderson
Joyful eyes: by Meghana Kulkarni from Pune, India 
Happy boys: by jeevan jose from Kochi, India 

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