September 8, 2021
8 mins

How to design culture and manage it like a product: the secret to high-performance

A principle-driven approach to culture design and management

Are you a Founder struggling to operationalise your values? Are you a People lead concerned about talent acquisition or retention? Are you someone who wants to change culture but aren’t sure where to begin?

If yes, then this is for you.

TL;DR

I believe culture can and should be unleashed as an organisation’s competitive advantage. If a team isn’t thinking about it in those terms, I say: friends, welcome to the land of opportunity! Culture doesn’t have to be dismissed as intangible or reduced to just a set of values on your career site. I believe instead that it is tangible and it can be managed just like a product. This is not an overnight process or a one-off project and it takes time, energy, a shift in mindset and discipline to do effectively. I’m going to propose 3 high-level first steps to get started on this journey:

  1. Define your culture today, beyond values
  2. Design your culture of tomorrow
  3. Manage it like a product

In this post, we will explore step 1. and step 2. How to define culture beyond values and an approach to designing your culture of tomorrow (and in the next post I’ll cover step 3.)

So leadership team…what does culture mean to you?

The conversation perhaps goes a little something like this: ‘How do we turn our culture into a beacon and magnet for talented people?’ Followed by someone seeking to clarify, ‘Culture is really important’ and then someone else: ‘Yes but what is culture?’ Everyone nods their head about how important culture is, but they quickly realise that culture is quite a big, vague word, and after a few exchanges it becomes clear that the team have wildly different ideas about what it is, why it’s important and who owns it.

Lean into that conversation a bit more and you start to realise that one person’s culture is ‘core values on a website’, another’s is simply: ‘vibe,’ and another person believes it is ‘the founder’s or CEO’s problem not mine…’

Sound familiar?

From ‘wishy-washy’ to tangible

This perception of culture being many things to many people is part of the problem and it is why sometimes culture can be dismissed as nebulous or intangible in comparison to other priorities. This can look like leadership teams relegating culture to the league of ‘too wishy-washy’ or ‘too hard,’ or even to the pile of ‘we aren’t going to look at that, let’s talk about profit and product!’.

But even if you don’t clarify what you mean by the word, properly define it, and then grow it intentionally then… culture will still grow. I think of it like a walled garden that you purposefully and lovingly filled with variety and colour and different aromas. You then left it for a while because you prioritised other things... what happened? It still grew, right!? Only now your garden may be full of things you didn’t plant. Instead of the beautiful environment, you set out to create, now you have a weed-ridden patch — and some weeds are very hard to remove.

How to avoid culture being relegated to the league of ‘too wishy-washy’? Define it.

We have to first define what we mean, understand its tangible parts and create a hard link between culture and business results (e.g. profit, speed, retention, NPS etc). Good news: if you define it well, that second bit becomes much easier. Let’s dive a bit deeper…

How to define your culture, beyond values:

I like this definition of organizational culture for its simplicity (Deal & Kennedy, 2000).

Culture is:

‘the way things are done around here.’

If we anchor that for how we think about today’s culture, then I propose tomorrow’s culture is:

‘how we will do our best work together.’

Once we’ve defined culture at a high level, now we can begin to drill down into its component parts. We can’t be intentional about growing it in the right direction if we don’t know what we are growing, right? :)

Here’s how we are currently thinking about culture:

  1. Mission
  2. Values
  3. Principles
  4. Cultural Priorities
  5. Behaviours
  6. Decision Making
  7. Communication
  8. Meetings
  9. Feedback
  10. Celebration
  11. Org Learning
  12. Equal Voice
  13. Fearlessness
  14. Healthy Conflict
  15. Quirks
Example Miro board describing culture (after a couple of iterations of feedback)

The important thing here is your context

Whether you like the components in the image above or want to use another framework, I recommend creating a rough prototype on a digital whiteboard and asking the rest of the business for some ‘what else?’ asynchronous feedback.

We want all eyes on this because we want everyone to have the opportunity to contribute, align and subscribe.

Once we’ve co-created a set of tangible components, we can facilitate a powerful conversation around both where our culture is today, and then later where do we want it to be tomorrow or if you subscribe to our earlier definition of culture being:

‘how will we do our best work together.’

Here are some example questions to help you facilitate this:

  • What behaviours do we amplify as a result of our values?
  • What behaviours do we outlaw as a result of our values?
  • What do we do and not do?
  • How do we communicate with each other, what are our speeds and tools?
  • What meetings do we have synchronously / asynchronusly? Why?
  • How do we have healthy conflict? What does unhealthy conflict look like?
  • How do we ensure fearlessness and equal voice?
  • How, when and why do we celebrate?
  • How will we hold ourselves to account? What does that look like?
  • How do we hire? Who do we look for?
  • Why do we fire and how do we do it?
  • How do we share knowledge?
  • What are our unique quirks?

The mistake to avoid

The mistake I see leadership teams making when having the culture conversation is doing it on their own. Sometimes there is a tendency to disappear into the woods for a retreat or an offsite and emerge triumphant with everything worked out. This is a fast track to disengagement and subscription which means wasting time and missing out on the opportunity of having your whole business aligned on a way of work that is optimised for you and your context.

So, what should we do instead? Well, the principle I have found to be most effective when targeting engagement and subscription (two core ingredients to embedding any org-wide change) is harnessing the power of co-creation.

Designing your culture of tomorrow by harnesing the power of co-creation

I advocate this principle be front and centre of any virtual, physical, synchronous or asynchronous, small-scale or large-scale culture design initiative.

There are many ways to do this depending on your organisation’s attributes, my personal favourite for ensuring equal voice is an asynchronous Miro board exercise with everyone — over the course of 72 hours — followed by a set of volunteer-led synchronous workshops (with small groups) to sense make and then playback to the rest of the business.

In my experience, the blueprint for running this is pretty much the same regardless of whether you are a 10-person startup or a 1000-person organisation. The facilitation structure is:


High level approach to culture design and management
  1. Build a shared picture of today’s culture
  2. Identify opportunities together
  3. Design tomorrow’s culture

This provides a solid foundation for managing culture like a product — more on that in the next post).

Here’s an example of what it looks like being co-created in Miro (200 people asynchronous facilitation over a week). This is building a shared view of culture today with heat mapped stickies denoting opportunity areas.

Miro board — building a shared understanding of culture today

This is part 2. designing culture tomorrow, where the opportunities identified previously are leveraged and simplified for clarity and reference. This is best done by a small team of volunteers and then invite rest of business to feedback before iterating.

Miro board — designing our culture of tomorrow

If you are interested in the facilitation nuts and bolts of this kind of thing, let me know and I’ll cover it in a future post, or DM me and we can have a coffee and chat it through. We are running a 250-person asynchronous culture design over a 2-week event at the moment purely using Miro for all collaboration.

This co-creation principle in action is so powerful if done well and goes a long way to supporting the next piece of the puzzle: putting everyone in charge of culture and managing it like a product, both of which I will cover in my next post.

Hope this was interesting for you!

I love meeting people who share my enthusiasm for designing culture-first businesses and making culture a competitive advantage so if that sounds like you, please feel free to connect on LinkedIn/Polywork/Twitter.

John Faulkner-Willcocks