Close X

Share Your Skies With Us

Got a great idea? A gripe? Pass it along.

*Required Field

Starlight - Our Blog

« Back to listings

Culture Works

by Todd Kasenberg

Orienting Thoughts

Have you ever come up with what you figured is a water-tight strategy? One so exceptional that you started counting the dollars that were going to flow into the bank?

Tell me - what happened? Did the organization nail the details, execute the strategy to perfection, and find that all of its models and tactics were exactly right? Are you sitting on a beach in Polynesia with Mai Tai’s at easy disposal?

Uh huh. That’s what usually happens. (That was sarcasm.)

You see, organizations can be really highly aligned and focused and disciplined and sympatico. But most struggle (a bit). There’s a soul in the warehouse who doesn’t like what he’s hearing about the strategy, and so he “does his own thing”. There’s an employee in operations who didn’t hear about the strategy, or maybe didn’t want to hear about the strategy – and so she’s doing improv.

People get in the way. They sometimes align. They sometimes are more like cats – wandering over keyboards, brushing up against legs, bringing you gifts of dead birds, and letting you know when it’s meal time.

People are the greatest asset. And the greatest potential detriment. To any great strategy.

That’s why the biggest kahuna of corporate effectiveness – Peter Drucker – said this:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

When people don’t align, strategies flop. You might as well not even have one.

When people don’t feel valued and important, your strategy flops. You might as well not even have one.

Your brand is not pretty images, good colour use in your logos, and nice typefaces. It is the end-result, the synthesis, of what all your people value, how they are with each other, what they consider are the best ways to do things, with a dash of energy. Truly, your values are your brand.

Culture’s Components

Values are the first fundamentals of organizational culture. They are guiding principles (ideas about what the organization should pursue), or a code-of-conduct (how the organization should behave) upon which organization operates on a daily basis

Values are a bit tricky, at times, to surface. That is because most people go about their world with their worldview, never really attaching words to their guiding principles.

You know when you are dealing with values because they:

  • are views of the world;
  • determine how you treat others;
  • are used to make tough organizational decisions;
  • are characteristic of many people who align; and
  • are timeless.

Values are not technical competencies. They also are not norms.

Norms are the second fundamentals of organizational culture. They are the standards we live by in organizations. They present as shared expectations and rules that guide behaviour of people within social groups. Norms are learned and reinforced by mentors, leaders, and peers while growing up in a society – or in an organization.

Norms can be even more difficult than values to actually put to words… because they are the organization’s clichés about how to behave in certain situations. Again, many within organizations just KNOW how to behave, but they struggle to put it in words. Norms may capture how each individual is expected to behave towards work. Norms may also relate to how each individual and her/his work interacts with others and their work.

The third pillar of culture is the vibe. The vibe of an organization is an emotional reflection of an organization, a snapshot in time of how it feels to work in the organization. Because it expresses one or more emotions, a vibe can be fairly volatile and is highly influenced by outside factors. The vibe can be influenced by leadership/management. Its largest influence is typically success!

Studying and Shaping Culture

Organizational culture consists, at core, of values, norms and a vibe. These together are focused into a mental structure that members of an organization use to make sense of their environment.

This mix – a culture - can drive a strategy forward, or leave it dead on the operating table. Culture can hold disparate people together so that they can change the world – or drive them apart, sometimes with kicking and screaming.

There is some evidence that some cultures (values, norms) are better than others in terms of all-line financial achievement in an organization.

It can be tempting to say you’ve got your culture, it’s good, thanks for the theory. However, it is common experience that if you ask 10 people to share their organization’s values, they will offer at least 10 opinions. So what do you really have?

We shouldn’t leave those discrepancies sit unchallenged – since data suggest that strong alignment around key values is one of the 3 key items in predicting which culture will win economically. We shouldn’t just allow drift to be our operating approach to culture.

Effective culture studies include assessment of extant and/or desired values, norm surfacing, and the stories of the organization’s culture that have created values, norms and the vibe. These data can be spooned into a process of conscious culture definition – so that you shape a culture that wins, and put paid to drift or formlessness.


Make. It. Real.

Guiding Star offers Culture Digs - a platform that supports the assessment of your current or desired organizational culture. We invite your consideration... no more drift or formlessness!


There are currently no comments.