We’ve looked at all sorts of cultures.

From Mining Co, to Consulting Co, to Bank Co, to Government Co, to Entertainment Co, to Not For Profit Co, to “Being Acquired Cos” and “Merging Cos”.

Each organisation is different.

With unique context, purpose, strengths, opportunities, and shortfalls.

We’ve spent some time reflecting on all 272 organisational cultures we’ve looked at. These are our big lessons.

We’ve split them into:

  1. The principles we hold dear
  2. 5 most important lessons
  3. 5 toughest lessons.

We hope they’re helpful to you.

Principles we hold dear

1.    Trust matters

Whether people give five minutes for the Culture Dashboard  or an hour or more for an interview, respect and value their time, their stories, and their trust in you.

Treat every moment and word with equal respect.

From Day 1 to the final data point.

Respect you’re in someone else’s space, hearing their perspective.

Listen well.

What keeps us up at night? Missing that one person. One call. One data point. One compliment or strength. One unresolved issue. One group that have a different experience – better or worse than most.

If you want to understand the truth – people have to trust you with it. And you have to listen to it from many perspectives.

2.    Facts and Data are the foundation

Never assume; always seek to find out.

Let the data fall as it will, not as you expect it to or would like it to.

N=1 can be interesting, even captivating, and it can be incredibly loud, but it’s only ever part of the picture – one piece of the jigsaw.

When data is complete – from as many people and perspectives as possible – it provides a very solid foundation for understanding.

3.    Fiercely independent

No matter how much you lean on us, we’ll hold independence.

In the words of Helen Reddy (and more recently, Judith Lucy and friends),

You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer.
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul

Facts, data, and independence combine to create trust in the process.

4.    Always complete the picture

At the 25% mark of a review, or data collection, you’ve heard 25% of what is to be heard. You’re at the quarter-way point.

What if the other 75% all agree with each other, but not with the first 25%?

You’ll need to change your mind. Change your read. It’s better to wait to hear from everyone. Be open right to the last person, the last interview. It’s about completing the picture from every perspective, without relying on assumptions, a pre-drafted narrative, or someone’s preferred outcome.

5.    Truth is patient

As we’ve learnt from history, you can temporarily bend it with one person’s version or a tainted perspective, but the whole truth waits patiently to be discovered.

Keep going until you find it, hear it, and can explain it clearly.

No amount of time can pass that will impact the truth.

It will sit there patiently and wait to be heard.

5 Most important lessons

There are 5 key lessons we’ve learnt that are helpful in culture reviews. These can also be applied to helping create good culture or improving shortfalls – which is a role every single person in every single organisation must play.

  1. Look for the positives just as much as the negatives. Most people are good, and seeking to do good. Find the reason they joined, thrive, contribute their best, and stay inspired.
  2. Culture is as imperfect and perfect as each of us. Expect flaws. Just like people, no culture is perfect, but very few are all evil. Most are somewhere in the middle.
  3. It’s not a judgement exercise; it’s an exercise in understanding. Seek to understand, not critique. The ‘why’ people do things is almost as important to understanding as the ‘what’ they do.
  4. What now? Describing the great strengths and any problems is a good place to start. It’s not the finish line. How do you value, leverage and protect the strengths? How do you address the shortfalls?
  5. People want to help. When you seek to define a culture, the people who live there want it to be the best it can be. They almost always have their sleeves rolled up. If you’re dealing with good people trying to do good work, they’ll be open to improving, not defensive about imperfections.

5 Toughest lessons

As we’ve learnt good lessons, we’ve also learnt some tough but equally important ones, too. These are things to consider in your work to build trust on the right foundations and improve culture in any context.

  1. Some people want to hide the truth – limit the data, restrict who you speak to, try to control the outcome so that it meets their narrative or personal agenda.
  2. Best intent is not always well placed. “Protecting” the institution, boss, brand, or an individual career can be limiting and narrow-minded in the quest to make things as good as they possibly can be for everyone.
  3. When you see things as they really are, there’s always a path forward. No matter how good or how bad things are, they can be better. There is always a path. Avoid hubris in response to good things – there’s always ways to be even better. Avoid being overwhelmed with the challenges and problems. Find the first few steps to move forward and people will support the intent, and find opportunities to help change gain momentum.
  4. Time matters. Not so short that things are missed, or too long so people have forgotten why they participated and trusted you with their perspective.
  5. Bad actors may thrive in bad cultures, but they exist in every culture. Never imagine any organisation has none. That said, be conscious of not confusing a bad person/bad actor with a normal person who made a mistake.

The solution to these tough lessons is as inclusive and as transparent a process as you can possibly design. Multi-layered sponsorship is ideal. Timeframes are efficient but not rushed or compromised.

In summary

We’ve given this a lot of thought.

As you consider the principles and lessons, it’s worth also remembering the context of our work.

  • 70% of our work is with good organisations seeking to be better
  • 20% of our work is with organisations that are challenged and need to dig deep
  • 10% of our work is with organisations that are merging or acquiring another into their fold.

They’re pretty good ratios to work with.

While media makes us think that most culture work is dramatic, and based on a deficit model, the truth is much calmer.

While we’re biased and LOVE what we do, we’re not alone.

Most people fully appreciate that culture is a critical component of every workplace and every team. It’s increasingly important to us all. Improving culture, starts with understanding. Appreciating the good, addressing the shortfalls, and taking every opportunity to do and be better.

We’d love to hear your views.