It's Time for a Culture Management Maturity Model


Last week we received our first-ever RFP for a staff culture project, and I treat that as a marker of just how mainstream “culture” is becoming in the management world.

Think about it: RFPs were essentially designed to maximize the effectiveness of the procurement process for commodities, where the nature of the product is well defined, and you need to compare the nuances of the approaches (and pricing) of different vendors.

Okay, but for culture?!

Geeks like Maddie and me have been focused on culture for a long time, and I have to say we’re surprised that it has reached the point where the management world is putting culture consulting into the RFP category.

Of course as culture consultants, we welcome the change! But if this is, indeed, an indication that culture is becoming more fully integrated into our management paradigm, then we now have some serious work to do. To date, we have relegated culture to the world of “hard to define” or something we will deal with “when we have time,” and that’s not good enough. I think we should elevate the sophistication of how we manage culture inside organizations, and that is why Maddie and I have developed a new maturity model for culture management.

And before you get your hopes too high, I’m NOT going to reveal the whole model in this post. We’re still working out some of the details, and we plan to release a white paper or other publication on it soon (see below to sign up and get it early!). But I’ll start you off with a key question that everyone considering working on culture must answer for themselves:

Are you treating culture as a concept, or as a practice?

At the bottom level of our culture management maturity model (perhaps obviously) is an organization that ignores culture. There are a large number of organizations at this level—they focus on their products, services, operations, etc., and their culture just evolves organically and unintentionally (Level 1 = UNINTENDED). Nearly every startup starts here as well, and the culture tends to be almost an extension of the personality of the founder(s). This is the classic “culture by default,” and these cultures are not always bad, by the way. Many default cultures can evolve in a way that’s relatively effective—just like sometimes you can guess right at the roulette table and win some money. It’s a matter of luck.

Some of these organizations will wake up and realize they need to be more intentional about their culture, and their next step is typically to try and define what their ideal culture should look like—frequently resulting in some kind of statement of core values (Level 2 = IDEALIZED). While these efforts are well intended and can sometimes provide concepts that do help shape a culture, this level of culture management is only slightly ahead of the culture-by-default approach, because it keeps culture in the realm of concepts.

An idealized culture is better than an unintended one, but the more important shift you need to make is from concept to practice. You need to put in place the most basic elements of a culture management practice—one where you are intentionally designing a culture and backing up that design with action steps and concrete changes that will manifest the behaviors that are critical to the espoused culture. If you want to develop a yoga practice, you don’t put posters on the wall of downward dog and warrior pose and walk by them, nodding your head in agreement with the concepts. You actually carve out the time and the money to take a class and start to DO yoga. And other parts of your life are going to have to shift to make room for this new practice. It takes time, and commitment, and resources, and, well, practice.

The same is true with culture. In the third stage of our model, you graduate from concept to practice by focusing on culture design (Level 3 = DESIGNED). That will include some conceptual clarity (in our work with clients, this is the part where we develop a set of Culture Priorities), but it also includes putting resources into a clear action plan for changes that will move your culture visibly in the direction of your priorities. We call this a Culture Playbook. You can call it whatever you want, of course—the point is, if you’re not building out your practice of culture design, you’ll be stuck just one small level above the people who are completely ignoring their culture.

And this is just the beginning. We have three more stages in the model after “designed,” and we’re excited to start pushing organizations to get even more serious about integrating culture into the very fabric of leadership. If you’d like to be on the advanced distribution list for our upcoming publication on our culture management maturity model, just fill out the contact form on our website and mention “maturity model” in the message box.

Photo by Sergiu Vălenaș on Unsplash

Jamie NotterComment