It doesn’t have to be a big deal

When I talk with people about topics like “design culture” or “organizational culture,” it’s pretty clear that people perceive culture work to be:

  • Invisible: full of intangibles, immeasurables, and subjective perceptions
  • Big and difficult: not the kind of thing you can package into a three-month project

Maybe “culture” is the wrong word. It has so many meanings and has been tossed around in so many unsatisfying management books that it has become bloated and useless for talking about What Needs To Get Done.

Our work over the last few years, whether with small groups or departments with hundreds of people, has taught us two things:

  1. The practical matters of culture can be visible and practical: there are ways to make the stuff that really matters tangible, to get it out where you can see it and work with it.
  2. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can make a lot of progress by attending to one thing at a time – one meeting, one conversation, one group, artifact, or ritual at a time.

Small acts over time have big influence

Here at Fit Associates, we have become avid collectors of useful points of view on organizational culture, leadership, and the way we all experience change. And there’s one point of view that applies here:

Culture in the large is tangled with culture in the small.

Maybe I can say that in a way that’s less abstract.

What happens in a meeting influences what happens in a year. Your conversation with Tom in the next department influences how your departments relate. The small things can improve the big things, and in turn those big things will help improve the rest of the small things.


And that is why I say it doesn’t have to be a big deal. Your day to day actions really do matter, and that’s not just a slogan on a poster with a rainbow. Often the best way to affect a big complex thing like “culture” is to improve a few small things.

Here’s a diagram:


But how?

The answer to that can fill a bookshelf with both strategies and tactics. But you have to know the whole shelf’s worth of stuff to take advantage of the small things – big things loop. A few tactics can make a difference, and here are two worth knowing.

Tactic 1: Artifacts and rituals – three steps to making culture tangible

Step one: Identify key moments

Think of key moments in which your work involves communication and collaboration. A key moment is one in which you and / or your team can either live out your values – “do the right thing,” “do it the right way,” “emphasize the important over the urgent,” etc. – or push those things aside in deference to whatever it is that’s pressuring you to do so. “It takes too much time”, “the boss won’t like it,”….

Here are some example key moments:

  • A request comes into the group from someone you all want to please, even though you’re really busy.
  • A conflict of opinions arises about priorities, approach, the best decision, who should do what,….
  • You’re starting a new project: planning, staffing, kickoff,….
  • Someone screws up, or your whole team screws up.
  • There is external pressure to do something you don’t believe in, or don’t want to do.
  • You hire someone new.
  • Your deliverable was poorly received, or very well received.
  • Someone does something really great.

You get the idea. Most of us live through a similar set of “rubber meets the road” moments. It’s in these moments where the abstraction of “culture” really plays out. We tend to behave this way or that way in these key moments. There are patterns to these conversations and the resulting choices. Culture comes to life in those patterns.

Step two: invent artifacts and rituals

Now pick one of those key moments, and invite the other people who are involved to come together for a one or two-hour design workshop. The agenda for that workshop goes like this:

  1. Describe what it looks like when you handle that key moment in the way you all really believe it should be handled. What does it look like when you live out the culture you want in that key moment?
  2. Make a list of the things that prevent you from handling it the way you’d really like.
  3. Then have a concept-generating session focused on this question: “What artifacts or rituals could we design that would make it more likely that we handle these moments the way we really want?”

Step three: experiment until something sticks

Pick one or two of the concepts you came up with, and try them out for a few weeks. The really good ones will be embraced and adopted. The so-so ones won’t. Iterate and experiment until something takes hold, and becomes part of the normal routine.

Congratulations. You’re doing culture work.

We have seen results like these….

Artifact: plan on the wall.
Rituals: first plan together and stakeholder guided tour

We know a team that now makes their first version of a project plan together out of sticky notes on the wall, rather than relying on the project manager and design lead to build it electronically. All the different disciplines contribute, rearrange things to reflect dependencies, and through the conversation learn a lot about what’s needed by the whole team. Then they invite stakeholders for a guided tour and discussion in front of the wall.

Artifact: Cross-department Passport.
Ritual: getting a stamp in your passport.

We know an IT department that is experimenting with a “passport” designed to encourage teams to become more knowledgeable and connected to people in other departments. Everyone has a “passport” – a printed booklet with a different activity on each page. For example, “learn the process of a sales campaign,” “have lunch with a sales manager,” “work a shift on the factory floor.” People get stamps in their passport when they complete one of the activities, and over time new bridges of relationship are built between departments.

Tactic 2: One conversation at a time

Here is another straightforward (but not always comfortable) application of the principle that culture in the large is made of culture in the small. I can describe it in two steps:

Step one: think of someone

Think of someone you don’t talk to a lot or don’t really know, but really things would be better if you had an open and friendly channel of conversation, or even a collaboration. Maybe this is someone in another group or another department. They may be more senior or more junior. That doesn’t really matter.

Maybe you haven’t had conversations with this person because you don’t seem them in the natural flow of work. They sit somewhere else, you’re both busy, you have very different responsibilities. Or maybe this is someone you avoid. You once had an argument. They were abrasive in a meeting. You don’t see eye-to-eye on values, priorities, or approach.

Whoever it is and whatever the reason, you believe that you, your team, and the results of your work would be improved if you had a better relationship with this person, whatever “better” might mean. Or maybe it would simply improve the experience of everyone’s day.

That’s step one: think of someone that fits this description.

Step two: extend an invitation

The minimum: ask them to share coffee or lunch.
Why that helps: even a half hour of conversation can help you “de-abstract” one another. Instead of thinking of each other through a label – “sales guy,” “woman in charge,” “annoying that one time last year” – a simple friendly conversation allows you to see each other as real people. Labels and stereotypes are sand in the gears of good communication and collaboration. Real conversation is lubricating oil.

More daring, more result: invite them to take a long walk
This is less comfortable because it’s not a normal businessy thing to do. But I promise it will lead to a better, more human, more interesting and memorable conversation than the usual visit over coffee. When you take a walk together, you’re doing something together. You’ll encounter other people and sights to comment on, so the burden of find a topic or keeping up the pace isn’t resting on the two of you alone. It’s a little more special, it’s an ancient form of conversation, and it’s great social lubricant.

You can say something like this: “We don’t get much time to talk, but I think it would be great to learn more about what you do, what your world is like, and how you see things. I’m told that / in my experience it’s the case that when people take a walk instead of just sitting over coffee, they often have a better conversation. How about we find an hour to take a walk and learn a little more about each other?”

Step three: show up with an open mind

This is key: this will have lasting impact on the way you communicate and get along with this person only to the degree that you show up with an open mind. Bring your curiosity. Get past your labels, presuppositions, and judgments. Listen, ask questions, pay attention. Assume the best of whatever they say.

That’s it. Take a walk with someone, and you’re doing culture work.