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Should your culture change?

Here’s a question I often hear when I speak to CEOs about defining the culture they want to create: “Is it better to figure it all out and introduce it to our staff as a completed document, or is it better to introduce what we can think of now and then let it evolve over time?” I’ll use this blog to share my perspective on this question.

When I ask this question to an audience of CEOs, the vast majority will tell me they think it should change over time. Here are some of the reasons they typically give:

  • Times change and you need to change your culture to stay relevant.
  • It’s too hard to think of everything you’d want upfront.
  • Over time, you’ll learn new things that you might want to add.
  • If you waited till it was perfect, you’d never roll it out.

An intention of permanence

Despite these reasonable points, I’m actually an advocate for taking the opposite approach. I say that we should work on our culture with “an intention of permanence.” In other words, we should put the effort in upfront to try to really get it right, with the expectation that it will last forever. At the same time, it’s an “intention.” If something comes up later that’s so critical that it must be included, I’m fine with changing it. But we’re not going into the exercise expecting it to evolve. Let me explain why.

If our culture is truly foundational to who we are and how we operate, it’s not likely to change. In fact, in a changing, chaotic, tumultous world, it can give employees a needed sense of stability or continuity to know that something is enduring.

Avoiding the “flavor of the month”

I think there’s another danger to changing our culture too much: it can cause confusion for our employees, and sometimes even cyncism. First we say our culture is this set of behaviors, and then we keep changing them or adding or subtracting ones. It’s hard to embrace anything if it keeps changing, and it can begin to feel like the “flavor of the month.”

While it’s no doubt true that our marketplaces are constantly changing, this requires us to change our strategies, our priorities, and our initiatives, but not necessarily our culture. What would change in our marketplace that would require a change in such foundational behaviors like honoring commitments, practicing blameless problem-solving, doing it right the first time, checking the ego at the door, or doing what’s best for the client, to name just a few? Nearly all the behaviors (we call them Fundamentals™) we typically identify, are relevant regardless of the environment. They’re simply an important part of creating a highly functioning organization.

Getting it done

As to the concern that it would never get done if we waited until it was perfect, my experience is that in a matter of 3-5 weeks, we can identify the Fundamentals™ that most drive success, articulate them, and edit and polish them enough to feel really confident they’re exactly what we want to say, in the way we want to say them. Of course, our experience having done this so many times now in so many different companies helps to make that process faster and more effective.

By the way, when I first created the concept of the Fundamentals™ in my previous company, I wrote them in a matter of a few weeks and then never changed a single word over a dozen years of practicing them. Could I have made some changes? Of course. But I felt that the value of the permanence outweighed the extra value I might have gotten by rewording something or adding/subtracting one.

Our Fundamentals™ System is the fastest and the most effective way to clearly define what you want your culture to be, and it’s the most sustainable way to have it live in your company for years into the future.