Toward the end of last year I keynoted the Chief Learning Officer Symposium and KMWorld. At both conferences, many speakers talked about the need to evolve, shift or otherwise change company culture. In some cases the shift was to support collaboration, in others knowledge sharing, and in still others, the need for investments in professional development.

Slide or bullet points that simply call out the need to change company culture offer no insight or guidance. I believe, in fact, that the entire conversation about company culture is detrimental to the work of adopting and effectively implementing knowledge management, collaboration, or learning and development programs.

Here’s why. Company culture is a meaningless, abstract, intellectual term. No one can do anything with a statement like “evolve your company culture.” No one. If you don’t believe it is a meaningless, abstract term then try explaining it to someone in your company and see if they agree, or even understand, what you are talking about.

In Management by Design I make this point and created a solution in the methodology. Rather than talking about culture, I suggest that organizations designing work experiences focus on policy and practice, space and technology. Those elements are essentially the levers of culture and they can be manipulated in very specific ways to change behaviors, improve perceptions, increase performance and encourage cooperation. Let me employ my favorite example: the meeting. Since people spend more time in meetings than doing just about anything else at work, they are the most frequent reinforcer of whatever culture your company exhibits.

Let’s set the scene: People come in late to the meeting and they bring their material on a laptop or tablet. When it is time to present, VGA or HDMI cord swapping ensues. People can dial-in, but only on the phone. People on the phone are only engaged occasionally.

You may not like that description, but it is not atypical of many companies I have worked for, visited or consulted with. Let’s take the scene apart.

  • People come late to the meeting. If you don’t already have a policy, then develop one and publish it saying that “people will be on-time to meetings, and they are expected to schedule their time so they can arrive a few minutes before the meeting.” Once publsihed, start all meetings on time. You don’t wait for people and you don’t catch them up. Perhaps those who are late become responsible for cleaning up the room or bringing refreshments (early) for the next meeting.
  • People bring their materials on a laptop. Bringing materials requires technology, policy and practice. First technology. Most companies have a collaboration repository and those who don’t can easily install Dropbox, Skydrive, Box, Google Drive or any number of other offerings for shared files. A place to put the stuff. Second, policy. Write a policy that states all materials for a meeting must be loaded to a shared repository accessible to all meeting attendees prior to the meeting. Practice: if you don’t upload materials to the shared repository, you don’t get to present. Finally, put a device in the room connected to the projector with all the software on it so that when any member of the group logs into that device, all of the material for the meeting is available. Cable swapping is then eliminated.
  • People on the Phone. It is easy to ignore that people are on the phone, ironically, especially if there are many.  A common practice is to pause for a moment and see if anyone on the phone has anything to add. Sometimes people speak-up, sometimes they don’t–sometimes the same person dominates the virtual connection. Again, you need technology, policy and practice. Technology, such as instant messaging or some other form of chat, displayed, ideally, along with the presentation. This implies that all presentations with remote attendees be delivered through a real-time collaboration system like Citrix GotoMeeting, Cisco Webex or Microsoft Lync. Policy should state that all presentations with remote attendees are delivered this way, and practice should reflect the policy. Any meeting that doesn’t follow these guidelines should be abandoned by remote attendees, which should force a reschedule. A few of these and the practice of following policy will come into vogue.

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So my very simplified, one paragraph description of a meeting became three paragraphs of guidance that would launch several policies, modify multiple practices and kick-off at least a couple of technology projects. That is why you need to STOP talking about changing company culture. What you need to do instead is state a desired outcome, design the experiences that will make the new outcome achievable, and then do the work to craft policy, change practice, implement technology and modify space that fits the new experiences so the outcome becomes somewhat inevitable by virtue of the design. So the next time a presenter tells you to evolve your company culture, ask them them for specific, actionable recommendations that serve their topic. Don’t accept vague punting to “well, your culture is different than ours so it would be context specific.” That may be true, but let’s hear about the context they do know about. You can make adjustments from there.


I received one very interesting response to this note, that went like this (in paraphrase):

Culture is about how people are valued.  I remember my days at a “big Northwest clothing manufacturer” where executives often said: “own your business and don’t repeat the same mistakes over-and-over.” If anyone below a VP, however, took the initiative to correct a systemic “mistake” they were written-up as being a rebel.

I believe this story illustrates the same principals stated above. Policy and practice together create culture. That also means that policy and practice in opposition to one another create culture, but a dysfunctional one. By saying one thing and acting in another way, executives at this company created a dissonance that resulted in distrust, inaction, stagnation and a number of other reactions that people go through when placed into uncomfortable, I would even say, threatening circumstances.

If you are an executive at a company that says one thing and then condones or even encourages behavior that doesn’t align with your policy statements, then expect high turnover, low satisfaction from customers and employees. Unfortunately, these firms reinforce this dysfunctional behavior at the highest levels as senior executives create a haze of confirmation bias. In the long run, these firms will never be excellent, never the a top brand and never attract the best talent–and they will probably end up in a slow spiral of demise. Designing a good work experience means finding alignment, encouraging transparency, acting honestly and seeking synergies that help your people execute toward the organization’s goals and objectives. If you are doing anything else, then you are taking energy away from your future, which results in slower growth and internal uncertainty that you just don’t need in a world already as uncertain as this one.

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