Introducing a Maturity Model for Culture Management

Just a few decades ago, workplace culture was stuck in the background in management circles—it was either ignored, or treated as a “nice-to-have” feature. In the last ten years, however, thanks to high-profile, culture-focused companies like Zappos and Netflix, culture has become one of those things that keeps the CEOs up at night. There is now widespread recognition that culture matters, for both attracting top talent and improving bottom lines.

What we don’t have, however, is a clear understanding of what it takes to do the work of culture inside an organization. Everyone’s making it up as they go along, frankly, and while some organizations are succeeding with this ad hoc approach, we think the business world deserves some clearer guidance on how to effectively manage something as important as workplace culture.

So we developed a maturity model.

Our model is derived from the deep research and consulting we’ve done over the last 10 years, and the purpose of the model is to help the people who are in the trenches of culture work to do that work more effectively. Maturity, in our model, refers to an organization’s capacity to (a) make sure that workplace culture is carefully aligned with what makes the organization and its employees successful, and (b) sustain that positive culture over time. Based on that definition, we have identified three distinct stages of culture management maturity, and each Stage then has two different levels inside.

Stage One: Culture as a Concept

At the lowest stage of maturity, culture is viewed primarily in conceptual terms. This could include completely ignoring culture (we call this Level 0: Unintended), but most organizations these days have reached Level 1 in the model, which we call Idealized. Welcome to the land of core values posters. Core Values exercises are all about articulating the concepts behind an ideal culture. This is an important step, but too many organizations will stop their culture work there—at identifying the concepts—and that leaves them vulnerable, because behaviors often deviate from the concepts, and the values often fade into the background, which makes sustaining the culture more difficult.

Stage Two: Culture as a Practice

The middle stage of maturity is where we see a lot of our consulting clients right now. Organizations that want to get serious around culture realize that they not only need the ideal articulated—they also need an action plan of interventions and changes that will turn that ideal into reality. This is what we do in our popular Culture Design project, and we call Level 2 in the model “Designed.” A single action plan does not constitute a real “practice,” however, so Level 3 (Managed) is about putting in place people, processes, and resources to support the ongoing management of your culture work.

Stage Three: Culture as a System

In the final stage of maturity, the work of culture management is woven into the very fabric of the organization. This is where companies completely build out their “Culture Operations” function, and culture becomes embedded into key talent/HR processes, policies, and internal and external communications. For the few organizations that have reached the highest level in the model, culture becomes integrated into leadership development, strategy, and even governance.

Below is our (rough draft) graphic showing how the different Stages and levels represent an upward spiral of maturity. It’s not entirely linear (you will often be working on more than one level at the same time), and it’s surprisingly easy to slide back down into an earlier stage if you’re not paying attention.

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In the next few months we will be rolling out several different products and resources related to the model:

  • White Paper/Ebook. These documents will flesh out the model in more detail so you can start to identify the areas that need the most attention in your organization.

  • Maturity Assessment. We have developed an online survey that will show your current position on the culture management maturity journey (currently in testing). You will see not only how broad your culture management efforts are, but how deep they are in terms of impact.

  • Culture Ops Consulting. We’re now offering both short-term and long-term consulting projects to help clients fully build out their culture operations function in order to reach the higher levels of the model.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about the consulting or be involved in the testing of the assessment.