Determining the Health of Your Culture

Culture will emerge after a group of people attempt to solve problems again and again in a certain way. This "way" becomes the culture. If you are deliberate in your choices on how to solve problems, you will be deliberate in creating a culture. Once you have a culture in mind and are working toward it or trying to maintain it, how do you determine how healthy it is? Clay Christensen has a simple question you can ask yourself.

How Will You Measure Your Life?

Clay Christensen wrote a book called "How Will You Measure Your Life?". The book applies some of Christensen's theories that might have originally pertained to business to one's life and family. It is a thought-provoking book.

In it, he talks about how to check and see if your culture -- whether in family or business -- is what you hope it might be. He writes:

You can tell the health of a company's culture by ask, "When faced with a choice on how to do something, did employees make the decision that the culture 'wanted' them to make? And was the feedback they receive consistent with that?" If these elements aren't actively managed, then a single wrong decision or wrong outcome can quite easily send a firm's culture down entirely the wrong path.

Two Good Questions

There are only two questions, and they're easy to remember. The first question assumes that were you or other culture leaders and exemplars to look at a decision, you'd make a certain choice. Between each other, you likely wouldn't make the exact same choice, but you'd favor certain types of responses. You would hope people at your company would respond in a similar way. You've thought about it. You care. You do things deliberately. There definitely will be a diversity of opinion and approaches in your company. But in the major, defining areas that you and your company care deeply about, you hope for a certain type of response and would like to avoid others.

The second question assumes that you're actively managing the culture at your company. It means that you are engaged in the company. You see decisions being made. You make and you see other people making decisions. You don't make decisions for them, but you are nearby, and you care. You talk to your people. You ponder what you have observed. You help people fall into the pit of success, guided by the culture. You talk up the culture in theory, stating your values, and in practice, giving specific feedback to people.

A Mental Survey

So how is your culture? Thinking into the recent past or anticipating the future, are your teammates making the decisions the culture 'wanted' them to make? Is your feedback reinforcing the values of the culture?

Here are a few situations you might ponder:

  • How was a system-wide architectural decision recently made?

  • How was an expenditure recently discussed with a team member?

  • How were lunch breaks recently discussed and treated?

  • How was a potential candidate recently treated in the hiring pipeline?

  • How was somebody treated when recently fired?

  • How was work quality recently measured and discussed?

  • How did a product team decide on what features to build next?

  • How was a goal recently defined for a team or team member?

In these situations, where decisions were made, think about who was involved, how they acted, what was communicated and enforced -- especially relating to your own involvement. Compare what you remember and have considered with what you think about the culture. Is the stated company culture reinforced by recent events at the company? Are recent events and decisions at odds with what most everyone is saying the culture is? How might you be able to close the gap?

Be willing to admit the truth where you find it. No culture is perfect. No team member is perfect. Be ready with some humility and a growth mindset. Appreciate what your culture can add to your company and to your personal happiness enough to ask the questions and improve your approach. Be willing to ask for forgiveness where you have deviated from your stated cultural values.

What have you found to be helpful in determining the health of your own company or team's culture?