What Is Culture by Design – and Why Does It Matter for Your Organization?

two_employees_shaking hands at a meeting
Benjamin Cannon

The culture within an organization is arguably as important (if not more) as the products or services it delivers. Building and maintaining an effective corporate culture is no longer something that can be left to emerge organically – it needs to be intentionally designed.

This growing focus on organizational culture is in part driven by talent – employees are increasingly choosing teams and jobs that highlight cultural fit as a key factor in their job search. In fact, 74% of American workers believe culture influences their job performance. 

This is where the concept of “Culture by Design” comes in. Culture by Design means consciously creating workplace culture through values, practices, environment, and messaging that brings out the best in people.

Rather than leaving corporate culture to chance, companies that embrace Culture by Design take active ownership in curating an environment that keeps employees engaged, attracts top talent, and allows an organization to embody the behaviors that will drive its success.

But how does a company begin to design its culture — and how can Culture by Design ensure you land on the right mix of values and practices that fit your organization?

What Is Culture by Design?

Culture by Design strategically and intentionally shapes an organization’s culture to align with and support its business goals and brand.

While many companies and organizations let the culture organically “sprout,” Culture by Design takes a more assertive approach to create a culture that is specifically tailored to the company’s needs and values.

There are a few key elements that comprise Culture by Design:

  • Values – Defining the core values and behaviors that embody the organization’s mission and vision for the future. These values should shape hiring, leadership styles, recognition programs, and day-to-day operations.
  • Practices – Implementing policies, procedures, training programs, and operational norms reinforcing the intended cultural values. For example, a culture focused on innovation should adopt practices that give employees autonomy and creative freedom.
  • Messaging – Culture is conveyed through both explicit and subtle messaging. Clarifying expectations around organizational values and regularly communicating stories that illustrate desired cultural behaviors keeps values top of mind.
  • Environment – The physical workspace, office layout, tools, and technologies provided to employees send cultural signals. An open office plan supports collaboration, while remote work policies signal flexibility and trust.

The Risks of “Organic” Culture

Sure, allowing an organization’s unique people and circumstances to determine its culture seems like the best move – let those who live in the day-to-day shape the culture that works best for them.

However, this laissez-faire approach to culture can also lead to risks and challenges. Here are some potential drawbacks of organic culture:

  • Lack of alignment – Without a clear set of values or expectations, employees may have different ideas about what is important and how things should be done. This can lead to confusion, conflict, and inconsistency in decision-making. Research shows that companies with misaligned cultures are 47% less likely to perform highly than those with strategic culture-building.
  • Inequitable treatment – Organic cultures may inadvertently favor certain individuals or groups based on their preferences, personalities, or backgrounds. This can create feelings of exclusion and resentment among other organization members.
  • Slow adaptation – When there is no intentional effort to shape culture, it may take longer for necessary changes to occur. This can hinder the organization’s ability to adapt to changing market conditions or implement new strategies.
  • Lack of accountability – In an organic culture, holding individuals accountable for their actions and performance may be difficult. Without clear guidelines or expectations, employees may not know what is expected of them and may not feel motivated to meet those expectations.
  • Resistance to change – Some employees may resist changes in an organic culture because they are comfortable with the status quo and fear losing their autonomy or influence.
  • Difficulty in scaling – As organizations grow, maintaining a strong organic culture can become more challenging as there are more people involved and potentially conflicting values and beliefs.

How Do You Begin to Implement Culture by Design?

David Friedman’s “Culture by Design” outlines eight essential steps for intentionally building and reinforcing a high-performing culture within an organization. The key to this is not to get paralyzed in the analysis of each step but to allow the process to evolve over time.

  1. Define the Fundamentals

The first step is identifying 3-5 core behavioral norms and values – the “Fundamentals” representing your ideal culture. Tie these to key business goals.

  1. Ritualize the Fundamentals

Establish company rituals, routines, and day-to-day activities that bake in and reinforce the cultural Fundamentals. This is key for embedding behaviors.

  1. Select for Cultural Fit

Screen and select candidates based on alignment with defined cultural Fundamentals and skills fit. Immerse new hires in the culture from day one.

  1. Communicate the Culture

Strategically communicate the cultural Fundamentals through messaging, company events stories and consistent vocabulary to keep them top of mind.

  1. Lead by Example

Leadership must consistently model the cultural Fundamentals in action. Promote culture champions.

  1. Evaluate and Refine

Measure adoption of cultural Fundamentals quantitatively through employee surveys and key performance metrics. Courses correct where needed.

  1. Recognize and Reward

Catch employees demonstrating Fundamentals and recognition through company awards, incentives, and public praise. Reinforce behaviors.

  1. Integrate with Systems

Tie cultural Fundamentals back to underlying company systems and structures to bake them in for the long term.

Start Impacting Your Company Culture Intentionally

A thriving organizational culture does not happen by accident – it requires thoughtful design and commitment from leadership. As the famous quote goes: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Companies that ignore culture jeopardize their ability to engage talent, retain top performers, and drive high performance needed to compete. In fact, companies that strategically design their cultures experience a 71% increase in revenue per employee compared to those with a passive approach.

While culture lives through people, leadership sets the tone and expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies. Commit now to asking what values your people should embody to achieve shared visions of greatness.

Be the leader who leaves behind a thriving culture as your legacy. The daily effort is worth the reward.

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