The Brass Tacks of Culture Management


I’ve been saying for a while now that we need to make culture management “a thing.” You wouldn’t consider running an organization without having your financial management systems, processes, and people in place—yet it’s apparently okay to ignore culture for years, simply because you are too busy. Really?

I would argue that has always been a bad strategy, but in today’s environment, I think it has become fundamentally unacceptable.

So let’s get down to brass tacks on how to do culture management. An easy way to get your head around it, actually, is to start by thinking in terms of financial management. Imagine you ran an organization with literally zero financial management—like the only time you knew you were in trouble was when the checks started bouncing. What would you do to turn that around?

Step one: make things visible. The first thing you would do is to get your hands around the basic data—what are the balances, inflows, and outflows every month. You can’t do any planning or budgeting until you know what you’ve got. The same is true with culture. The bedrock of culture management is articulating what your culture is. And I don’t mean core values posters. I mean clear distinctions on how you do things and what is really valued down at the operational level. I recommend starting with answering the “how do we do this” question around four areas: agility, transparency, collaboration, and innovation. Look for patterns, not statements of ideals. Remember, this is the “what is” part, not the plan for improving things. That comes later.

You can use a fancy culture assessment like ours to get the data (we, of course, think that’s a great idea), but if you don’t have resources for that, then start convening some conversations internally to answer those questions. How do we really do collaboration here? How much is innovation really valued? How much failure can we really tolerate? The qualitative answers to those questions will help you paint the basic picture of your culture, which you need before you can do the rest of the steps.

Step two: make a plan. In finance, they call this a budget. Once you see “what is,” you’ll have to make a call on where you need to be. So you start drawing some lines in the sand about minimum or maximum levels of revenue and expenses you need to hit by the end of next quarter or next year. The lines you draw, of course, should be based on a clear understanding of what success looks like. The same is true with culture. You will always have limited resources, so you need to choose wisely about where to direct your culture efforts. Don’t try to fix everything—prioritize. We recommend identifying no more than six culture priorities to be working on at a time. They should be clear, discrete, and connected visibly and obviously to both high-level success drivers and ground-level behaviors.

Step 3: Navigate. The first two steps are about painting static (but clear) pictures: current state and ideal state (balance sheet and budget). Once those are done, everything becomes in motion, and the job is different. Now you’re constantly evaluating and reevaluating based on new information that’s coming in, shifting resources from one area to another if needed, maybe putting a project on hold if the revenue numbers are way below targets. Same with culture. As you implement your playbook to improve culture (process changes, technology changes, HR changes, etc.) you’ll need metrics to know if you’re making progress against your priorities, and you’ll need to evaluate individual plays for effectiveness, and maybe swap one out for a different approach.

As you can see from these three simple first steps, I don’t think culture management is overly complex or difficult. But it takes time and effort. And we find a lot of HR leaders feel they don’t have the time or resources to do this work.

Then outsource it. That’s what you would do with financial management, wouldn’t you? You’d find some kind of accounting or bookkeeping professional and pay them to make sure you were covering the basics. Doing nothing is not an option!

The same is true for culture. Get your culture management basics in order, or watch your competitors win.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Jamie NotterComment