I’m Prof. Seth Frey at UC Davis and I’m running SCRF-supported project on a major off-chain dimension of decentralized organizations: culture (here is post #1 introducing the project). We are starting by looking at culture building practices in traditional organizations. This is the domain that has shown the most explicit and enduring interest in the practice of culture, enduring enough that it has created culture building professionals: people who have done enough work in enough organizations to develop a general, systematic, intentional approach to culture building and culture change. I’m an academic, and I love academic theories of culture, but it is my suspicion that the most important insights about how to build culture are going to come from the mouths of the people who do it.
At this point we have run several interviews and we are already starting to learn some things. Before diving into any of that, I want to motivate the question.
I’ve gone in with a “real question”: something I genuinely don’t know. Is culture building an art that only specially trained individuals can perform successfully? Or is there a general approach to culture building that anyone in any org can learn? At glance, the answer is clearly: we need specialists. In practice, there are lots of culture building systems, and around all of them there is the sense of “secret sauce”. Building strong culture is hard, and only by following the guidance of one special consultant or consultancy will you experience the transformative potential of a team whose values, practices, and mental models are widely aligned and deeply internalized.
These qualities that consultants have, variety and inscrutability, are easy to build around something as goopy as culture. But are they real? Consultancies might be incentivized to support the mystery, and any story of the value that they alone can bring a client. I actually haven’t seen that too badly: all of our interviewees seem to resist that kind of narrative. However their clients seem susceptible to it. Perhaps a client doesn’t have to be responsible for its org’s sick culture if that sickness is a mystery, and if the mystic they hire to fix it can’t.
So is culture building a magic art that only specially gifted intuitive individuals can perform in their own special way? Or, lying under all the special approaches and paradigms and exercises, is there a set of activities that any organization can make their own with the right commitment, resources, and buy-in?
Our very early impression, from just five interviews so far, is that … Wow.
If you ask five people their philosophy, background, inspiration, or anything about the high level of their approach, you’ll get five very different answers. One practitioner’s approach comes from the person who mentored them into culture building, another from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and a third from their yogi.
But if you ask them what they actually do once they’re on the ground, it seems they all do the same thing
In every case the work of corporate culture building/change is fundamentally about having lots of private->group->private->group conversations with as many members as possible. Our informants are all pragmatic, talking to everyone in small orgs and intentionally diverse samples in large orgs, often about 20 people total. They’ll start with a sense-making process to determine how participants see their org and their place in it. Then they’ll convene a group meeting to surface that sense, toward a common-knowledge delta between where the organization’s values and culture are, and where participants said they want it. With this common knowledge established the same group can talk about solutions. This is where expertise, secret sauce, and specializations come in, as consultants chime in with practices and solutions of their own, but at the end of the day, it seems that there are many kinds of solutions to the same small number of culture-building challenges. At this same point, a plan is developed to delegate these tasks. Then, less often, but seemingly crucially, the consultant returns monthly or quarterly, ideally for years, to check in with the implementers for updates, advice, accountability, and troubleshooting.
Again, this is a very early impression from a very small group of practitioners, however diverse. We’re likely to evolve in our own description of it. But from their very early peek at the data, our answer seems to be that, yes, there is a relatively standard system that organizations, decentralized or not, can follow in order to be intentional and systematic about building a strong organizational culture. It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of resources. It requires a sensitivity that encourages honest input from participants. It may be that some people are better at it than others. But at the end of the day, we are hopeful that we’ll distill from many very different practitioners a general approach that any decentralized organization can follow.
One exciting takeaway was how consistent our informants were, even within traditional hierarchical organizations, about seeking and surfacing the values and hopes of the lowest employees that they talked to. While we expected to hear that consultants would focus on onboarding employees into the leadership’s desired culture, what we saw more of was consultants focusing on tough talk with leaders about how the organization must change to align with what drives its employees. This bottom-up interest focus of our informants is an encouraging sign for us as we work to translate these insights for decentralized organizations.
And one takeaway we’re unsure about is, well … is it obvious? Of course if you want to drive real social change you should talk to everyone and get them to talk to each other. Of course it’s not a magical dark art. But is it obvious? I don’t know. All I can say is that I really didn’t know when I started. But now I’m being pulled in a clear direction: it may be that decentralized organizations can take a distilled version of culture-building consulting practice and help an org through that process from the inside.