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culture operating system

Why Your Company Needs a Culture Operating System™

A what? If you’re like most business leaders, you’ve never heard of a culture operating system™. In fact, it may seem like an oxymoron. So how does something as fluid as workplace culture jive with something as technical as an operating system?

If you’re a CEO or business owner, you understand systems. You depend on them to run the concrete aspects of your company, like operations, finance, and sales. These processes are essential to ensure your company’s efficiency and success.

culture operating system

But it may surprise you that it’s also possible to be process-oriented about workplace culture. In fact, without a plan and a structured method to bring it to fruition, disjointed efforts to develop your organization’s culture will fall short.

Utilizing a culture operating system™ is the most logical and productive way to build a dynamic workplace culture.

Why Other Methods Fail to Build Culture

These days, few CEOs dispute the value of having a solid workplace culture. They understand that the right kind of culture empowers their employees and improves outcomes for their businesses. Still, many remain unsure how to develop the best environment to achieve these goals.

It isn’t for lack of trying. For example, before the pandemic, many leaders jumped on the trend of offering fun perks to keep their people happier on the job. It was the era of ping-pong tables, pizza parties, and pets at work. But most CEOs discovered that as enjoyable as these things were for their staff, they did little to create a dynamic culture for their companies.

After COVID upended everyone’s lives, leaders began focusing on understanding and addressing the more serious issues their employees faced. Instead of bean bag chairs and gym memberships, they offered more flexible work models and programs to better support mental health and inclusivity.

These efforts to improve employees’ wellbeing were a giant leap forward in how companies interact with the people who work for them.  And such measures do more than help make people’s lives more manageable. They can also improve their morale at work and, in many cases, help elevate their performance. But even these well-meaning efforts aren’t enough to form a strong workplace culture.

And for decades, many business leaders have tried to launch their company’s culture by creating a set of core values. But as inspirational as they are, values aren’t enough to form a robust workplace culture. They’re too intangible to motivate people to act on them.

Leaders can enhance their organizations with core values, meaningful programs, and even appealing perks. But these things won’t create a culture that consistently brings out the best in people and gives the company a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

What’s a Culture Operating System™?

To comprehend what a culture operating system™ is, we first need to define the term “culture” as it applies to the workplace. The culture in any organization is comprised of its staff’s behavioral norms. It’s apparent in how each employee approaches their work, interacts with other team members, and interfaces with customers and stakeholders.

In other words, corporate culture isn’t a set of core values or policies; it’s the organic set of behaviors displayed by staff every day. These behaviors, good and bad, influence every aspect of a company’s performance more than anything else.

A culture operating system™ is a specific methodology for creating and institutionalizing an organization’s culture.

It’s not a “set it and forget it” improvement initiative. Instead, it’s an ongoing process to develop and encourage the behaviors that will optimize the employee experience and the company’s potential for success.

How to Build and Sustain a High-Performing Culture

In Culture by Design, J. David Friedman explains that the point of “operationalizing” culture is to deeply ingrain optimal behaviors into the fabric of the organization. To achieve this goal, he lays out an eight-step framework that leaders can follow to create the culture they want for their companies.

  1. DEFINE the employee behaviors that drive your success.  
  2. RITUALIZE the practice of these behaviors
  3. SELECT people who are the right fit for the company’s culture
  4. INTEGRATE new hires into the culture
  5. COMMUNICATE the culture throughout the organization
  6. COACH to reinforce the culture
  7. LEAD the culture by example
  8. DRIVE the culture through accountability

While each step is important, Friedman says the first two create the foundation of a culture operating system™. When done well, they lay the groundwork for the system to succeed. We delve into these critical two steps below.

communication assessment

Defining the Behaviors that Drive Success

Friedman believes that driving a culture throughout an organization is primarily a teaching function. For leaders to educate their employees about the culture they want, they must first distinctly outline what they want that culture to be. To do that, they must develop a list of behaviors they want to see permeate their workforce.

To compile this list, Friedman prompts leaders to reflect on:

  • Current behaviors that, if done more consistently, would elevate the company
  • The negative behaviors that undermine progress
  • Positive behaviors that they’d like to see instead
  • The employees they wish more staff members would emulate

These behaviors should exist on several levels, including standard operating procedures, management tactics, and principle-based conduct.

It’s vital for leaders to define these behaviors as actions versus concepts like core values. Values are principles that govern our conduct, but we can’t see people performing them. In contrast, behaviors are verb-based activities, like:

  • Practice blameless problem-solving
  • Honor commitments
  • Get clear on expectations
  • Communicate to be understood
  • Do what’s best for the customer

Because behaviors are action-oriented and specific, they’re easier to coach, teach, and provide feedback on than values.

Ritualizing the Practice of the Behaviors

After creating and defining their list of preferred behaviors, leaders must set up methods for employees to practice them. Developing effective rituals to reinforce the behaviors will prevent this initiative from becoming just another good idea that runs its course or peters out when things get busy. As Friedman notes,

“Rituals are what enables us to stick with things when we wouldn’t normally have the discipline or the motivation to do so on our own.”

Leaders can follow a two-step method to instill culture-strengthening habits:

  1. Have their teams focus on one behavior each week.
  2. Devise several rituals to help their staff think about, discuss, practice, and consistently perform that behavior throughout the week.

Managers can conduct these rituals in various formats that reinforce each other. Examples of effective rituals include:

  • A weekly written insight or video, distributed to employees through email or other means, in which the CEO or other designated staff person reflects about each behavior
  • Making the behavior of the week the first discussion point on every meeting’s agenda
  • Engaging employees with interactive online quizzes about the featured behavior
  • Communicating quick, daily tips to help employees think about different ways and situations to apply the behavior

The purpose of such rituals is to generate engagement and build strong habits. The ensuing discussions and interactions help employees navigate the nuances and challenges of performing specific behaviors.

Deploying a Culture Operating System™

The first two steps in the above framework allow leaders to establish the basis for the culture they want their organization to exhibit. They can sustain and continuously improve their culture by following the remaining six steps. The final piece of the puzzle is implementing a methodical and efficient process to accomplish this goal.

Rolling Out a Culture Operating System™

The only way for any company initiative to be effective is to elicit buy-in from the workforce. So it’s crucial for leaders to properly introduce a culture-building system to generate their team’s enthusiastic support and participation. Friedman recommends explaining this kind of culture initiative in interactive rollout sessions that involve every team member.

These sessions give leaders a venue to provide context and meaning for this important effort. They allow them to explain the program, why the company is adopting it, how it will be implemented, and why it will benefit everyone. Whether leaders conduct these sessions in person or virtually, they’re key to ensuring the program’s lasting impact.

A Workplace Culture App

While it’s possible to email the elements of a culture program to team members, not every employee works at a desk or even has a company email address. Alternatively, a mobile phone app ensures that the material reinforcing cultural behaviors is at everyone’s fingertips.

Various apps to enhance workplace culture are on the market. These platforms offer a portable means of engaging employees in a user-friendly way. They also give managers a tool to coach their teams wherever they work.

Leaders should select the app that can best deliver the teaching material and messaging they want their people to absorb regularly. Ideally, the app should also be interactive and offer a method for team members to give and receive acknowledgment for their accomplishments.

The Benefits of a Culture Operating System™

Larger corporations may have the capacity to operationalize their workplace culture without external assistance. But most small to medium-sized organizations don’t have the internal resources to make this happen. However, a culture operating system™ offers every leader access to the tools and guidance to generate dynamic company culture.  

Once a culture operating system™ is in place, leaders will soon begin to see a difference in how their team members talk and act about their company’s culture. Everyone will be working from the same “blueprint” to build success-generating behaviors. Over time, benefits will continue to compile, including:

Introducing a culture operating system™ can help leaders who struggle to eliminate chronic problems in their workplace culture. And it can give leaders with a reasonably good culture the means to make it exceptional.

Schedule a call with a CultureWise specialist to learn more about what a culture operating system™ can do for your company. And enjoy a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters for the latest articles, videos, podcasts, and webinar opportunities focusing on workplace culture.

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