Nicolas Embleton

April 1, 2021

Organizational Culture Architecture! A fancy new term?

Recently, a very interesting person I've met on LunchClub asked me with curiosity "You've mentioned Culture Architecture, I'm intrigued, what is it?". I had mentioned it during out one hour chat as part of the things I do regularly and that I really care about.
I had not expected the question back but was happy to receive it, as it is something I really love talking about. Here's a re-write of what I answered.

You have an organizational culture whether you want it or not

Whether you want it or not, there always *is* an organizational culture within any given organization, however the nature and the size. Said differently, as long as you have humans in the room, there is a culture. *What* is that culture, however, depends a lot on how it has been built.
By "built", I don't intent to imply that you can actually build it by assembling the right blocks with the right colors like a lego, but there is a building process in action, and the bricks are actually put by the group members when they join and behave a certain way. The next stage is when the group looks at this member putting the brick and decides how to behave as a reaction to it. The reaction to a cultural brick is in itself another cultural brick - or is it the cement that binds it together, perhaps more accurately?

And so, it happens. People bring their bricks, the group cements them together, and there you go, you have an Organizational Culture.

Culture is a conscious *architecture* effort

To continue with this allegory, if the group wants the bricks layed out and cemented together to look like something they would want to live in, the group needs to *architect* it. It sounds logical - so would say spock - but what does it mean practically speaking? Let's dive in.

First, you need a leader to create the awareness. As much as I love and promote self-organization and power unbundling, in the current society we live in, power distribution is still structured as a pyramid. In organizational structure first, but also in most people's minds. Sometimes, in more mature or open-minded organizations, leadership - as in people that lead, not in a hierarchical sense - may come from someone from within the group or a few people building the core seed, but that is still pretty rare in my opinion.
When the leader / leading-group has realized and vizualized what an organizational culture was and that in order to hope building the right one a conscious effort was needed, the leadership sets out to align the team and build up the energy.

Second, you need a strong shared vision and alignment. The leadership will start out by drawing what would a *good culture* look like for them. That's effectively the architectural blueprint. We'll look at what a culture is in another blog post, but for now we'll consider it is a set of core values, sub-set from the larger organization one's so as to not conflict with them, a set of agreements, assumptions and a set of principles and behaviors that they would like to see or discourage within the group.
Of course, architecting a culture is neither a top-down event, nor a forced-upon dynamic, as these almost never work out as expected. Once the first blueprint draft is ready, the team gathers and discusses about it. This may take a few prior educational meetings / gatherings in order to bring everyone to the same state of awareness.

Third, you need time and a lot of experimentation and iterations. Once the team aligned and agreed on a version of the draft, things are in motion. It is often not possible to change things overnight, so manage your expectations on how quickly / slowly things will take up, but with a continuous conscious effort, the team should be able to keep on experimenting with new things, trying different boundaries, principles, validating assumptions, so on so forth. Regularly - weekly, bi-weekly or monthly - the team meets up and discusses / reviews the experimentations. What worked? What didn't? What should be stopped, what should be changed / tweaked? What could be started / tried?

Fourth, you need consistency and a lot of reinforcement. At every new week or cycle that goes by, things will keep on moving and evolving. Every new member joining will bring with them a little piece to add up to the group's culture, every member leaving will likely take away with them a little piece of the culture as well, by removing some of the perspectives and energy from it. Therefore, things are perpetually in motion, evolving, and therefore you should never stop looking at your culture.
At every new cycle, keep evolving the principles, behaviors, keep reminding the agreements, the assumptions, the behaviors, so everyone has them on their mind at all times, and increase the chance that they will live by it at every decision-making touchpoint.

Finally, you need to celebrate success and amplify learnings from failures and experimentations. To solidify the perception from the team and the positive force created from the culture the group architected and built, it's important to remember to celebrate! It's all-too-often forgotten and taken for granted, easy to overlook, but the group needs to feel good and be proud about the achievements. However, it is not easy to know when / what to celebrate, as these things are often intangible and not considered mission-critical - though arguably they are. So celebrate new evolutions to the blueprint, celebrate realizing that the team was wrong - on something - in the past and has figured out a better way through experimentations or failures. Celebrate events that give birth to new assumptions or that confirm or simply invalidate some of them. Celebrate people who join for what they will bring, celebrate people who leave for what they have brought to the culture and do your best to surface what they may take away with them, so the team can either update the assumptions / principles, or add components to compensate for it.

Where to go from here?

There is so much more about this, but I will stop here, as this piece of blog has already gone on for too long (told you, I really love talking about this). However, here are some more bits we'll talk about over time. Remember to subscribe if you want to read about them:

- What is a culture and what are the components? With examples of behaviors, assumptions, principles, values, etc...
- What are all the touch-points of an Organizational culture? Where and how does culture spread? There's so much about this, it may take a few posts to cover it.
- What is HR's role in helping the organization architect its culture?