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In our last post, Let’s Talk About Connection, we shared why connection is the heart of culture and what you can do to improve it at work. Connection is a logical starting point for culture-related change, but it alone will not be enough to change culture sustainably. Fortunately, it makes collective improvement and learning—the foundation of how culture evolves—easier.
Few culture or change frameworks are simple, clear, and entirely consistent with fundamental truths about culture.
For that reason, we created The Culture Habits.
They are the foundation of all solutions Compass offers. It’s a commonsense framework for culture-related improvement and not an exact template.
The Culture Habits
Habits are a powerful concept to connect to culture:
- We are creatures of habit. Those habits impact our thinking and behavior.
- Every team and organization can learn new habits to improve.
- Habits help sustain new ways of doing and increase the likelihood of a culture evolving.
- Change can start in any group and spread as new habits or approaches lead to results. They can spread as others learn about the positive impact and try similar approaches.
The Culture Habits are:
- Connect – Connect to each other, to purpose, and a shared commitment to results
- Explore – Define what’s helping and hurting results
- Improve – Take action and create change
- Learn – Implement systems to learn and evolve
We need a lens like the culture habits that is simple, clear, and easy to apply to any group at any level of an organization.
You don’t understand something until you can simplify it.
Let’s take a deeper dive into each habit.
Connect to Each Other, to Purpose, and a Shared Commitment to Results.
Connection includes all the habits and approaches used to help a team or organization build open and trusting relationships with each other and a shared commitment to achieving results in pursuit of a defined purpose.
In short, the focus is on connection of team members to:
- Each other
Connection is the heart of culture. Unfortunately, while most organizations have plenty of habits or systems to emphasize results, they have far fewer to build open and trusting relationships.
How do you build connection?
We focus on building connection at many levels, but “Compass sessions” are the most effective approach to unite a team through building relationships and a shared commitment to clear improvement plans.
During a customized 1-2 day Compass session, a team follows the culture habits of connect, explore, improve, and learn..
- A combination of individually answered questions and group discussion about common themes are used to help a team share vulnerability and learn about each other. The structured sharing takes you places you would never have discovered, even with people you think you know well.
The team will also connect to their purpose or “why” and the results they will focus on improving together. Those results are not culture results or changes but the results that matter most to the team (growth, innovation, customer experience, launching a new product/service, etc.).
- Explore – With results clarified and the safety to openly share established, the team will explore what’s helping and hurting their ability to achieve the results that matter most. In some cases, they may review feedback from other members of their organization or team.
- Improve – Improvement looks different after a team takes the time to connect meaningfully and explore culture connected to results. The typical race to action or judgment is replaced with a thoughtful and effective process to evaluate alternatives and commit to a way forward.
- Learn – The final habit involves two parts: 1) individual sharing of top learnings from the Compass session, and 2) commitment to follow-up actions and a specific date, typically in 3-6 months, to openly reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and why as an input to refining improvement plans.
“Connect” is not a one-time event but a series of habits crossing Compass sessions, team meetings, one-on-one talks, and many other areas to help a team or organization build more personal and caring relationships.
As relationships and commitment to the purpose grows, the team moves from a basic sense of psychological safety to being “psychologically driven.” Team members feel compelled to share what’s on their minds and proactively contribute whatever they can to support each other.
Culture is not something you assess or survey just one time and learn everything you need to know. Why?
Relationships in many organizations are not strong enough for team members to transparently share their thoughts, feelings, and experience about the current state. It takes consistently obtaining feedback, “exploring” beneath the surface across individuals, and translating insights to action to build a shared understanding of reality. When you explore with consistency and act on challenges, trust is built, and team members feel safer and safer to share improvement feedback.
An essential skill in exploring culture is curiosity. You must be curious about things that don’t make sense or that surprise you. You need to suspend judgment and understand the shared beliefs or assumptions driving the behavior on the surface. Behavior that doesn’t make sense to some can make complete sense to those exhibiting it when you explore their behavior from their perspective.
Culture pioneer Edgar Schein once said, “Smart people doing stupid things fall in a bucket we call culture.”
How to Explore
Use the following approaches to explore:
- Focus on results – Identify the outcomes or results targeted for improvement and the specific patterns of behaviors helping and hurting the achievement of those results.
- Go beneath the surface – Use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to understand underlying beliefs, assumptions, and behavioral norms or “unwritten rules” at the root of the behavior.
- Understand what’s driving the behavior and beliefs – Identify what’s “reinforcing” or encouraging those behaviors and beliefs to persist. Consider clarity of vision, leadership, and systems, structures, or processes (we call them “culture drivers”).
See examples in the format below that we use in Culture Academy.
Consider the following alternatives as you explore:
- Core team – Design and facilitate your exploration efforts with a core team or small sub-group to integrate diverse perspectives.
- Probe history – Assemble long-service team members and understand how the culture has evolved, including unintended consequences of significant changes. It’s much easier to “connect the dots” on understanding the current culture if you know how it surfaced.
- There is no “one culture” – Identify differences across teams, levels, and other demographics. Understanding these differences is often the key to change.
- Decode excellence – Identify groups using more inclusive and effective approaches to achieve results. Capture what they are doing differently than other teams/groups.
- Go beyond engagement – Engagement and most other workplace surveys are measures of the work climate. Understanding the work climate is not sufficient. It can distort things if you don’t probe the underlying culture. Consider a culture survey of values and norms, but always start with qualitative assessment (group sessions, interviews, etc.).
Like Connect, Explore is not a one-time effort. You may choose to manage a substantial culture exploration at a point in time, but make sure there are regular (daily, weekly, monthly) feedback loops on what’s working and what’s not.
Improve — Take Action and Create Change
OK, we’re finally to Improve. Let’s make it happen, but in a more sustainable way due to the impact of the Connect and Explore Habits!
The heart of Improve is a group’s ability to learn how to overcome the challenges identified in Explore in order to achieve results. It’s not about creating a “culture plan” with general changes to systems like communication, recognition, performance management, or other areas–
Common examples include:
- Overcoming collaboration or competition across silos to innovate or improve customer experience.
- Shifting from command and control to more inclusive, team-oriented approaches to drive growth.
- Balancing a very entrepreneurial or empowered approach with the discipline, accountability, and teamwork necessary for improved quality, safety, or risk management.
This approach depends on business leaders driving the change, not just supporting teams in Human Resources (HR), Change Management, or Organizational Development (OD). With the truth from the Explore Habit comes accountability for leaders to deliver results in more effective, people-oriented ways.
How to Improve
The Improve Habit depends on inclusive approaches to prioritize changes, implement improvements, deliver results, and unite teams through collective effort. We use our Improve Model to increase the likelihood that teams will evaluate alternatives from some important angles to increase the chance of success:
- Define and Communicate Vision: For our targeted results, is there a shared vision of where we are going, why it matters, where we are now, and how we will get there?
- Leaders Go First: What are leaders doing to model behavior, manage change with those around them, and get feedback to improve? Are leaders shifting their behavior based on what we learned in the Explore culture habit?
- Connect & Create Safety: Improvement begins by creating connection with each relevant group. This ensures safety as we solve problems and develop solutions.
- Test New Ways: One of our favorite strategies is piloting improvements to overcome the most complex challenges before scaling across an organization. It can involve pilots with an initial team, location, division, or other group to prove out what works before scaling. We find piloting is often overlooked in favor of rushed organization-wide changes.
- Rebuild the Machine: Every organization builds up many systems, structures, and processes during its history. They are perfectly designed to reinforce the current culture (and the results you are currently achieving.) We’ve grouped them into 12 categories:
The Improve culture habit typically involves a combination of quick wins, often from refinements to Culture Drivers, and more significant changes to engage groups in overcoming culture challenges to achieve results.
If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems.
It’s important to note that any plan is just a starting point with culture-related change.
Edgar Schein once said, “You only begin to truly understand your culture when you try to change it.” It will take persistent action and many feedback-driven refinements for sustainable change. Ed recommended focusing on the next “adaptive move” as groups encounter obstacles. Comprehensive, perfectly designed change efforts can be a waste of time without the openness to make numerous mid-course corrections.
Connect and Explore set up our ability to build habits. When Improve is done in ways that overcome our biggest obstacles and impact the scoreboards we care about most, that is what makes the new habits stick.
Learn – Implement systems to learn and evolve
Everything that shows up in a change effort is teaching you something. Without habits to learn and evolve, most of that potential learning is wasted as the whirlwind of work takes over. The Learn culture habit is used as a mechanism to capture learning and to scale “what works” to other teams, problems, or priorities. We also evaluate what didn’t work and let that clarify how our culture actually operates.
After a team manages work across the Connect, Explore, and Improve culture habits for 6-12 months, we recommend a Learning Compass session. The focus of this one-day session is reflecting in a disciplined, inclusive way on what worked, what didn’t, and why as an input to scaling and sustainability plans.
Culture is contagious good or bad; share the results beyond the team involved to help others learn new ways of doing to achieve results.
Reflection is the key to learning, and reflection is what we often rule out because we are too busy.
How to Learn
Reflection and other approaches to learning can be built into many culture habits, including:
- Agenda items in communication or team meetings.
- Regular recognition awards or times to share stories and examples of groups achieving results in new ways.
- Consistent post-mortems, after-action analysis, or lessons learned sessions.
- Sharing on company intranet, newsletters, or other standard communication approaches.
- Consistently revising training and development content to include recent learning or best practices.
Culture will not change or evolve without groups learning new ways of doing. Learning is under-appreciated. Curiosity should drive learning, and that learning should be the start of meaningful change. Many want the culture tip that is immediately successful, hoping to avoid the pain, frustration, and effort to manage disciplined cycles of improvement and learning.
There isn’t a quick fix to implement effective and meaningful change.
Without intentional learning, adjustments, and proactive efforts to scale “what works,” many change efforts will be too slow.
Final Thoughts on The Culture Habits
The Culture Habits, when emphasized with consistency, can be a clear path to connecting culture and performance improvement in an effective way. The specific habits will look different at each organization, but they can be forged through education, feedback, learning, and consistently translating insights into action.
Evaluate the current status of your team with the following Culture Habit questions:
- Connect: Do we have open and trusting relationships that help maximize our potential to achieve results?
- Explore: Do we inclusively explore what’s helping and hurting our people and results?
- Improve: Are we clear and aligned with how we will achieve results together?
- Learn: Do we consistently reflect and adjust plans based on shared learning?
Learn more about the simplicity and impact of The Culture Habits in improving results for: