The secret recipe for organizational culture is not a recipe

Imagine a chocolate chip cookie. Better yet, buy one. Take a bite. Savor the flavor and texture. What makes a chocolate chip cookie so delicious? With the exception of the chocolate chips, most of the ingredients aren’t that appealing on their own. Few people take a big spoonful of flour to satisfy a craving. The other ingredients are not obvious except for bakers: salt, vanilla, baking soda. Yet each is essential to the final product.

This cookie exercise, first shown to me by a leadership consultant Margaret Wheatley during a workshop, is an excellent (and delightful) demonstration of the emergent properties of a system: the whole has characteristics that are not found in any of the individual elements that compose it. This point is useful to start exploring organizational culture. To understand why a culture is working or needs fixing, you need to understand the whole and the parts. Your organization’s culture emerges from the unique combination of your people, principles, policies, and practices—all of them—in your distinct operating context.

The events of the past year have many leaders fearing the cookie will collapse. The pandemic-induced disruptions within the workforce appeared to weaken culture as a unifying organizational force. And because culture emerges, it is difficult to remedy this weakening or other ills by importing “best” practices from one organization to another — simply appropriating admirable principles or practices on the innovation, for example, will not yield the same result because the people and operating environment will be different. Thus, the cookie metaphor does not take us any further.

A cookie is a bounded and, once set, static system. If you combine specific ingredients in precise amounts and prepare them according to exact instructions, you will get a generally predictable result. Organizations, on the other hand, are complex and adaptive systems. They are always in a state of flux as people come and go, investor and customer demands change, technologies emerge, and so on. This makes culture impossible to dictate from above and therefore culture is less about following a recipe and more about mastering the art of baking, allowing you to quickly spot challenges and opportunities and be able to adapt yourself. If you’ve ever seen the cooking competition show segments where contestants are given five random ingredients and asked to create something wonderful within a time limit, you’ve gotten the idea. There is no recipe per se, although there is a method.

Here are five actions leaders can take to create a beneficial culture from the unique ingredients within your organization.

Culture is less about following a recipe and more about mastering the craft of baking in order to quickly spot challenges and opportunities and be able to adapt.

See the system. Cookies remind us that everything in your organization is connected and that culture emerges from the interactions between the whole and the parts. Culture cannot actually “eat strategy for breakfast,” as management guru Peter Drucker put it, because the two are inseparable – ideally, each mirrors and amplifies the other. To get a clearer picture of your organization’s system, chart the experiences of your employees and customers. Try something similar with the “how an idea becomes a solution” journey in different parts of the organization. These system maps can reveal many stages and touchpoints that help define your culture, for better or for worse. Take, for example, a company that micromanages every second of a customer service representative’s time and compare that company to Zappos shoe retailer, where every employee is expected to “help out even when it’s not their job” and “go above and beyond in every interaction” with all stakeholders. The former has a top-down culture focused on control, and the latter empowers employees and encourages initiative. Every activity in your organization presents an opportunity to create the culture you want.

Accentuate the positive and articulate the negative. It is essential to have a clear and convincing vision of what you want your culture to become. You must also recognize where you have been and have a clear eye on where you are. When setting goals around diversity and inclusion, for example, it’s important to be realistic about why you haven’t been more diverse and inclusive to date. Ask yourself what you did, explicitly and implicitly, to create your current state. Once you have this information, you can engage in the unlearning and relearning necessary to get where you hope to go.

See culture as a living system. I find the “simple rulesvaluable strategy approach when talking about culture. He argues that organizations work best with a few constant parameters to guide activity, but with abundant freedom within those parameters to be creative in achieving goals – just as jazz musicians improvise while respecting the limits of a melody. agreed. This approach encourages the right balance between convergence and divergence. According to the creative strategist Michelle Holiday, all living systems navigate in this tension. Large organizations should seek to align with “a shared organizational purpose, identity, and narrative that endures even when people come and go,” she told me. Simultaneously, she says, these organizations need to encourage variability in microcultures across different departments and geographic locations, for example. Done right, the mix of convergence and divergence fosters both consistency and adaptability for a “self-organizing, self-healing, regenerative” culture well suited to managing disruption and change.

Make culture a continuous journey. Organizations are dynamic and so are their cultures. Netflix, one of the organizations I’ve studied that is most intentional in expressing its culture, is evolving its famous “cultural platformwhich describes the principles of its culture, as well as the company. Every new hire goes through an intense introduction to the culture as part of the onboarding process. The principles of the culture are then criteria in daily decision-making, and the culture is treated as living, not as a plaque on the wall. The bridge is current iteration says, “We’re not trying to preserve our culture, we’re trying to improve it. Every person who joins us helps shape and evolve the culture. According to Holliday, the evolution of culture can be messy, although that’s not a bad thing. The alternative – generally prescriptive approaches that narrowly define relationships and processes – encourages rigid, mechanistic thinking and is ill-suited to unleashing people’s potential to solve complex challenges and cope with rapidly changing circumstances.

Take the change to the top. Barry O’Reilly, a consultant who helps organizations innovate, told me that a common barrier to invention he encounters is that senior executives often embrace the idea of ​​change for others, but aren’t ready to change. themselves – and are then surprised when the change fails. People in positions of power send signals that resonate throughout the culture. Therefore, senior managers should recognize what they need to do differently to foster the culture they desire. “The most important action of any leader is to model the behaviors they want others in the organization to adopt,” O’Reilly told me. “Culture change doesn’t come with words, it takes action. If leaders don’t adapt their behavior and actions, people see the whole effort as a hoax.

In an era of accelerating change, a strong and resilient culture is an invaluable asset for quickly overcoming obstacles and identifying opportunities. Cookies are a great conversation starter, but the slice-and-bake solutions aren’t good enough. Start a dialogue within your organization about what people like about your culture and what they would like to change, and you will begin to understand the unique ingredients of your company’s ideal culture recipe.