You lead a business, a department, an area, or a team and want to define the organizational culture in a managed way.
Use this playbook to...
- Define the foundation of your organizational culture for the entire company or for a specific department/area/team
- Define the vision and values that will north the development of your products and services
If you want to run it remotely, you'll need:
- Virtual whiteboard (e.g. Miro, Figma)
- Video conferencing (e.g. Google Meet, Zoom)
If you want to run it in-person, you'll need:
- Sticky notes
- A TV or computer with an internet connection
- Culture workshop Miro board
- Spreadsheet with the activities agenda and suggested timeboxes
- Spreadsheet with the list of universal values
- Culture document template
What is culture?
Culture is always a much-debated subject. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management theory, allegedly said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. When aligned with strategy and leadership, a strong culture leads to positive organizational outcomes.
Ashley Goodall and Marcus Buckingham say, in their book Nine Lies About Work, that culture matters because it contributes to identity, processes, and vision. Besides that, culture is the answer that people give when they are asked “how is it to work there?”. Culture determines how hard people will work and for how long they’ll stay in your company.
Culture has some definitions (from Culture and Organizations, Gert Jan Hofstede et al.):
- It is the knowledge system of a relatively big group of people
- It is the nurtured behavior, it is the sum of what a person learned, of the accumulated experience which is socially transmitted – or, to make it short – the behavior through social learning
- It is the lifestyle of a group of people – the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept (normally without thinking about them) and that is passed by through communication and imitation from one generation to the next
- It is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group’s skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions
The definitions made it clear that culture is always a collective phenomenon. Culture defines the social game: the cultural norms define what is accepted or not in the group and also direct it toward a shared purpose.
This is the first hint to manage the culture definition process. Values, direction, beliefs, and behaviors are keywords that translate well to strategic management concepts like vision, mission, and values. And it is also worth talking about principles.
Vision, mission, values, and principles
Any leader came across the challenges of goal setting or was questioned regarding the purpose clarity. In strategic management, the tools to work on these issues are the vision, mission, and values. I particularly like the definitions found in the book Product Roadmaps Relaunched (Todd Lombardo et al.):
- The vision is the outcome you seek in the long term. The vision tells us where we want to go
- The mission is the intent you have right now. It’s your purpose, it’s your guide toward the vision
- Values are beliefs and ideas that govern the behavior of a group of people. If the vision tells us where we want to go, the values help us to correct the course toward the vision
Besides values, principles may also be helpful as they’re the basic rules that explain or control how something must work.
By the end of this workshop, you’ll have set the vision, values, and principles of your organizational culture.
How to do it
You’ll need a meeting room with enough run to place the sticky notes (a table drop or wall) in case you run the workshop in person. Besides that, you’ll need to replicate the exercise available in the Miro board in the physical space. Print the universal values list (a copy per participant).
If you run it remotely, make your copy of the Miro board and grant access to the participants.
Group size and composition
A group of 4-10 people is enough. More people than that make collaboration harder. It is important to note that this group will influence strongly the cultural definition of the company, department, area, or team. In companies or teams recently formed, these people will be the pioneers. In the mid and long term, most of the organizational behaviors will be similar to the behaviors of these first people.
In well-established companies or teams, the cultural definition will appear to be more like a process of codifying the existing culture. So, try to rank a diverse group to participate in the workshop. This way you’ll have more chances to capture the diversity of the implicit cultural elements present in the company, department, area, or team.
Welcome and introduction
Start explaining the workshop’s purpose. Explain why defining the culture is so important and what are the expected outcomes.
As a warm-up for the following activities, choose a presentation that you find inspiring and watch alongside the group. Choose something with broad concepts that make sense for the people attending the workshop. Examples:
- Dare To Disagree (12:40): Margaret Heffernan argues the power to disagree and how conflict is important for progress
- We Are Software People (21:39): Jeff Lawson highlights the unlimited advantages when creating products and services by thinking in terms of software
- Not Just Code Monkeys (21:28): Martin Fowler discusses ethical principles of software development, asking people to be user advocates of the products and services they develop
Ask people to make notes of anything they judge interesting. After watching the presentation, start a discussion round. Ask what they found most interesting. Group the notes in themes and proceed to the next activity.
Group the themes identified in the discussion
With the group warmed up after the thinking round, describe what are values to them:
Values are beliefs and ideas that govern the behavior of a group of people
Discuss briefly the maximum number of values that the group would like to define. Up to ten values are enough. If you define more than eight values, it may be useful to differentiate which are core values and which are aspirational values. Jurgen Appelo define them:
- Core: they are your natural values. Without these values, you would not be yourself
- Aspirational: it will take effort to reach these values because they’re not natural for you
Share the universal values list. The list has over 250 values. Ask each one to vote on the values that resonate more with them. Ten minutes is enough time for the voting process. After that, identify the most voted values and let the group discuss them. Ask people to express why the values are important and ask them to give examples of behaviors expected for each value.
Vote on the values and discuss them
It may be possible that the group decides to choose a less-voted value as more important than a more-voted one. This isn’t a problem as long the group reaches a consensus.
This discussion can last 30-45 minutes. After it ends, ask the group to describe briefly each one of the values. It should take up to 15 minutes.
Briefly describe the identified values
Principles are useful to describe the rules of the company culture. Remember: values are beliefs and ideas that govern the behavior of a group of people while principles are basic rules that explain or control how something must work.
For this exercise, describe what principles are and give some examples. Discuss briefly the maximum number of principles the group wants to set. Up to ten principles are enough.
Ask them to think of useful principles (set a 10 minutes timebox). After the end of the timebox, choose somebody from the group and ask them to share the identified principles. Then, ask if somebody else identified similar principles and group them.
Group the principles and stimulate a discussion
Repeat until grouping all the identified principles (this should take 5-10 minutes).
Identify the important principles for the attendants grouping similar themes
After grouping the principles, ask the group to express why they think these principles are important and to give examples and references to these practices and actions. This discussion should take up to 30-45 minutes. After it ends, ask the group to describe briefly each one of the principles. It should take up to 15 minutes.
Define the principles as you did with the values
The vision statement definition has a more structured approach. Before starting this activity, explain what is a vision to the group:
Vision is the outcome you seek in the long term. The vision tells us where we want to go
A good vision statement must contain the following elements:
- The customer (who?)
- The benefit or need(s) addressed (what?)
- What makes it unique (how is it different?)
Give examples of vision statements of well-known companies and how the previous elements are present in them. An example from Airbnb:
Create a world where you can belong anywhere
- Who? You, the customer
- What? A sense of belonging
- How it’s different? Anywhere in the world
To make it easier, use the following template:
A world where [the target customer] no longer suffers from [the identified problem] because of [product/service differentiation]
Use the template as the starting point to define the vision
A discussion round of 20 minutes must be enough to identify the target customer, the problem, and the product/service differentiation.
Example of a vision statement for a fact-checking service
Values and principles before the vision?
In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek describes that you should always inspire people by starting with the purpose (the why), and then proceeding with how things must be done and, lastly, what must be delivered.
This way, shouldn't the vision discussion come before the values and principles? In my personal experience attending vision and values discussions, the order of the discussion was always commutative: the values are always derived from the expectations and aspirations of the personal beliefs of the group.
Besides that, values and principles are always easier to discuss and elaborate on than the vision. But this is only a guidance and not a rule: make tweaks to the workshop to adapt to your reality. The result will be the same since the last step of the workshop is to create your culture document. In the document, the vision will be presented before the values and principles.
Create your culture document
This is a post-workshop step. With the vision, values, and principles defined, it is time to document them in a format suitable to be shared with everybody. My recommendation is to create a textual version of it and store it in your knowledge base. It may be a Confluence page, a Notion page, or Google Docs. The important thing is to be easily findable.
To make it easier, use the template available in this playbook. After filling with the elements of your culture, validate with the workshop attendants. With the document validated, share it with all relevant people.
Turn the workshop attendants into ambassadors of the culture. They can help to spread the cultural elements and to reinforce the expected behaviors in the meetings, during the hiring process, in onboarding sessions, and strategic planning sessions (e.g. OKRs and roadmapping).
At N26 Brasil, we run a workshop similar to this on July 2021 when the Engineering team was only five people. The attendants became responsible for the Engineering’s onboarding sessions. The N26 Brasil Engineering culture document is publicly available.
- Building an Engineering culture
- N26 Brasil Engineering: Culture, vision, values, and principles (Brazilian Portuguese)
- Jacob Engel, 2018. Why Does Culture 'Eat Strategy For Breakfast'?
- Boris Groysberg et al., 2018. The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture
- Ashley Goodall e Marcus Buckingham, 2019. Nine Lies About Work
- Gert Jan Hofstede et al., 2010. Cultures and Organizations
- Jurgen Appelo, 2014. Management 3.0 Workout
- Todd Lombardo et al., 2017. Product Roadmaps Relaunched
Suggestions? Questions? Reach me at Twitter!