Culture isn’t an idea. It’s a practice.

Culture, culture, culture. It’s everywhere, and it’s all everyone wants to talk about. But what is it, and why is it so important?

Once upon a time, management theory was all about one-way communication and that was that. Leaders would “insert their meaning into words,” pass those words along, and the recipients would simply extract the intended message at the other end and act accordingly. No muss, no fuss. The idea was that, as a worker, you simply showed up and did what you were told in order to support the goals of the company. This kind of thinking came about largely related to manufacturing jobs, and in fact some theories view the organization itself as a metaphorical machine. Roles were seen as specialized, standardized and replaceable. You do your part, do it to an established standard, and if you burn out or fail to meet the standard we just pull you out and plug someone else in to replace you.

If you try to superimpose this kind of thinking onto the complex environment of today’s business realities, things come apart quickly. Yes, directive-based leadership is still necessary, and success still requires consistent and predictable output. But that alone just isn’t enough to succeed in the market, or to retain the talent you need to remain competitive. People aren’t staying in jobs for 30 years to maintain the status quo until they retire anymore. In fact, in the past year the current generation of workers changed jobs at 3x the rate of previous generations.

That level of millennial job turnover comes at an annual cost of $30.5 Billion.

So what do we do? Is your company’s future at the mercy of these fickle brats*? Do you just have to accept and live with the idea that today’s employees are disloyal and entitled and all you can do is complain about it while you watch them walk out the door?

Not by a long shot.

The solution starts with values. Every company has them, but a surprising number leave them to chance rather than investing in the process of deliberately defining them. This oversight comes at a cost, both in market share and talent retention. In fact, in contrast to other workforce demographics, modern workers are more inclined to place their personal values ahead of those of the company when making business decisions. Interestingly enough, despite that fact I still find in my coaching work that most people haven’t put a lot of time or effort into defining their personal values either.

So that leaves us with companies of undefined values hiring individuals with unclear needs in the blind hope that some magical act of divine alignment will pull it all together in just the right way to breed success.

Great plan, everyone. Excellent work.

“An organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” – Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

What may have once been a fascinating novelty, the culture-driven organization has clearly transcended “Willy Wonka” territory to become ubiquitous, in many ways the minimum standard in the eyes of new entrants to the workforce. Ping pong tables, Nerf guns, and free snacks aren’t dazzling and special, they’re expected if not a bit of a worn cliche. And they’re certainly not a substitute for real values-based cultural strategy.

In order to create a successful culture, companies need to first invest time and effort in uncovering, refining and defining their values. It’s not a checklist item to be casually knocked out in the middle of an hour-long marketing meeting. It’s a deep, introspective process that, when properly conducted, will reveal the fundamental truth of your business and provide a compelling north-star by which to align your strategy.

But it’s not enough to stop there. Our words and concepts don’t do us any good until we activate them. We have to take the information we find in the values process and thoughtfully build it into the way we function.

There are a variety of ways to operationalize values and culture. One of the most successful yet relatively under-hyped is a method used by Intel, Google, Twitter and numerous other successful tech enterprises – the process of using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to align vision, goals and outcomes.

OKRs work like the mission, vision, values process in miniature. If vision is the what, mission is the how and values are the why, then Objectives become the what and Key Results the how of your annual and quarterly operations strategy. The why remains constant – organizational values should be such that they are true and meaningful at every level and over time. If I am in the transportation industry because I believe passionately in connecting people, then my quarterly goal of building bridges over every river in the county connects to those same values.

OKRs ask you to set aspirational goals, and then implement and measure the activities required to approach the target. If you have taken the time to get clear on your organizational values, the OKR process becomes a familiar extension of that work and allows you to dynamically drive your vision forward in a clear, transparent way that engages your teams and centralizes your culture.

By engaging in this level of connected cultural strategy, organizations can inspire vision in their employees and create alignment between personal and corporate values. When the two are aligned, there is resonance and amplification of purpose which will foster innovation and success. When they are out of alignment, well, it’s only a matter of time before your company becomes job #3 on last year’s resume.

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* I don’t believe that millennials deserve all the negative backlash that people throw at them. I don’t like talking about it as a “them” either. The change in personal values and workplace needs is not limited to an age demographic so much as it has been brought about by the unprecedented rate of social change as the result of digital technology. It doesn’t require “these kids” to “act right,” it requires an evolution of understanding and ideas about workplace values to integrate with the current reality.

Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss these ideas further or collaborate on a cultural strategy to enhance the success of your organization. I love this stuff, and I’m always happy to share ideas and make new connections!


Also published on Medium.