“If only we had a better culture?”
I hear that phrase all too often.
You may have said it yourself, but what does it mean?
What does a better culture look like? And, more importantly, how can you create a better culture?
It all starts with understanding that culture is emergent. It’s the experience that emerges at the intersection of the physical, psychological, and political systems that operate in interactive ways in a business.
Let’s break down these systems:
The physical system consists of the tangible components of the business, such as its facilities, equipment, and processes, that support and enable the flow of energy, matter, and information through the business. A well-designed physical system can greatly enhance efficiency and productivity, while a poorly designed one can create lots of problems and noise. It is also easily mappable and measurable.
The psychological system, on the other hand, comprises the intangible aspects of the business, such as its employees’ beliefs, values, and attitudes. This system governs how people feel about their work, interact with each other, and approach problem-solving. A strong psychological system can promote teamwork and innovation, while a weak one can lead to low morale and a lack of motivation.
Lastly, the political system is made up of the social power dynamics and decision-making processes within the business. This system governs who has authority and influence, how decisions are made, and how conflicts are resolved. A fair and transparent political system can promote trust and collaboration, while a biased or opaque one can lead to resentment and resistance.
Imagine these three systems as overlapping circles. Where they intersect is where culture emerges. For instance, a business with a physical system that prioritizes safe ergonomic throughput, a psychological system that promotes creativity and risk-taking, and a political system that encourages open communication and participatory decision-making is likely to have a culture of innovation and excellence.
In contrast, a business with a physical system that is poorly regulated, a psychological system that fosters a culture of fear and blame, and a political system that is dominated by a few individuals who make all the decisions is likely to have a culture of stagnation and dysfunction.
So, what can you do as a business leader to shape your organization’s culture?
First, recognize that there is more to your business than physical flows that are easy to measure. Go beyond mapping and measuring your physical flows and build a more complete understanding of the business.
To make this more actionable, start by inventorying the organization’s values and beliefs. Develop ways to measure and assess psychological safety and engagement. Map and measure your political processes for generating objectives, allocating resources, and distributing opportunities.
For example, if your physical flows are turbulent, consider using tools like the Theory of Constraints and lean to make your flows smoother, faster, and less noisy. If your psychological system is leading to low morale, find ways to improve psychological safety and engagement. If your political system is fostering resentment, consider creating more transparent decision-making processes and distributing power more broadly.
And as that more complete picture becomes clearer, investigate how your physical, psychological, and political systems interact with each other. Think deeply about how you can make them more congruent and cohesive so that they drive a virtuous cycle of better culture.
Remember, culture cannot be created overnight or imposed from the top down. Rather, it emerges from the interactions between your physical, psychological, and political systems. By understanding and actively shaping these systems, you can enacting a culture where work is meaningful and people embrace responsibility, productivity, innovation, and success.