Many of the most iconic and admired companies today are known as much for their culture as they are for their product or experience. Hollywood made a movie made starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson featuring Google’s culture. Zappos has spun off an entire business teaching people how to recreate their distinctive culture. Disney became known for the “Disney Way” in the 80s and 90s, so much so that corporate executives began to go through their Disney Institute in order to understand what made Disney so effective at uniformly delivering a great customer experience. “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is a quote that many of us recognize from management theorist Peter Drucker.
But for many of us culture remains an elusive thing, something we note as a certain “office energy” or the “DNA of the people.” We sometimes say that a company is “Just a great place to work,” without any real clarity as to why. Culture can even become another one of those tired corporate euphemisms that is casually thrown around and regularly misused, creating Office Space-like cynicism for employees. Even so, culture is a critical component to organizational performance, driving behavior and execution. And there are definite ways to not only understand it, but also to develop and unleash it.

To really understand culture we have to, as the author Edgar Schein suggests, become organizational anthropologists. To do this, imagine visiting a remote village in the South Pacific that has just been discovered. How would we try to understand the people who live there? We might consider:

  • The way buildings look
  • What is rewarded and honored
  • Key leadership behaviors
  • How people gather and socialize
  • Where time and resources are given
  • Key rituals and meetings
  • Key roles
  • An understanding of what is worshipped
  • Shadowy aspects — things that are in direct opposition to how the culture espouses itself
  • Stories — key moments, origin stories, heroic tales
  • Symbols and icons

We can learn a tremendous amount by viewing organizational culture this way. We can see how things are done, what’s valued, and how the organization presents itself.

Yet understanding culture requires seeing things that are observable and also not observable. Many people refer to this cultural framework as the iceberg , or in this case “the island”— some things exist above the surface and quite a bit exist beneath the waterline. The results of an organization — everything from financial performance to the “feel” of the office — are what we call the HAVE level. This is the observable tip of the island.

The next level down includes all the efforts that go into driving the results. This level includes a complex set of behaviors, processes, and systems. This is what people in an organization DO to drive results. This is the land of tasks, reports, and deliverables.

These efforts are, in turn, driven by the core of the organization, the BE level. The BE level includes a set of values, beliefs, mental models, and mindsets. This is the “essence” of the organization. It’s how the organization sees the world.

Many organizations get into difficulty working on their culture because they focus on the areas that are the most visible or seem the safest to explore–often the DO level. They will design complex systems and launch sophisticated training programs to teach their people how to DO things differently. Yet they often ignore or avoid the most powerful and least understood level: BE. The BE level is the soul of the organization. The BE level includes core values, mission, and organizational identity. This is where we discover the DNA of the organization, what is ultimately valued.

Understanding the BE level of an organization takes real time and effort. Many use an inquiry based framework to collect narratives that speak to the heart of the culture. Origin stories, “best of” moments, and “defining” times are collected and compiled. After these data are organized and compiled, a set of core values, beliefs, and mental models are articulated that describe the heart of the organization. This work sets the stage for building and aligning HR systems, training, communications, and other key DO-level mechanisms that reinforce the core.

Sustained work at the BE level of an organization, followed by designing DO-level systems and process, eventually lead to powerful results at the HAVE level.

Culture development is generally a long-term process that focuses on discovering the core aspects of an organization and then coordinating the design and delivery of systems that will reinforce it. These processes require a certain level of commitment and can be time intensive.

And there is no cruise control setting for culture. It won’t run on its own. It requires dedicated resources. But when it works well, it’s an amazing thing to behold.

The key is to start at the BE level, the base of the island, the seafloor on which all of the structures rest. Focus on the essence of the organization. Consider the organization’s identity. Gaining a foothold on the BE level allows purposeful work at the DO level. This, in turn, drives results at the HAVE level.

Culture isn’t just the fun things. It isn’t just for the good times. Culture is understanding how human systems operate at varying levels of depth and that they can be guided. Guiding them is the role of the organizational anthropologists- the leaders. This is a difficult, but rewarding task that enriches the whole and drives deep and sustainable success.