tl;dr: This post is the fifth in a series surveying the experience of professional culture builders building culture in a way that is bottom-up but intentional. I present about a dozen levers for changing culture that practitioners independently mentioned most often. By identifying the tools of culture change, we make it more tangible and plannable.
Post #1 laid out the question and the tensions motivating it: Can decentralized organizations do what decentralized organizations do: focus design effort and energy on mechanism, incentives, and the “tangibles” of organization design, or do they have to put energy into intangibles as well?
Post #2 shared the results from 5 pre-interviews with culture building professionals: practicing consultants who have worked in enough organizations to develop a general view of what culture is and how an organization can change it. Despite major differences in their backgrounds, they all do basically the same thing. This suggests that culture building, as a set of concrete shared practices, is not a mystic art, but something any community can do with enough energy and commitment.
Post #3 describes the method behind posts 4–6: what we did (read a bunch of books by more consultants) and some of the meta takeaways of the effort.
Post #4 describes the five qualities or dimensions of culture that authors across our review had the most agreement on. These are concrete qualities things that our efforts at culture building can target with specific, concrete interventions.
Post #5, this post, describes 15-20 levers of culture change, ranked by how often our pool of practitioners mentioned them. These would be the intervention that a community’s culture building projects would implement to target each of the dimensions of a good culture.
Post #6 argues for explicit management of culture change in decentralized communities. It asserts that culture change is a project that should be managed and that it is possible to do so in a way that respects the bottom-up essence of culture and its changes.
Compared to other posts on the building culture project, this post will be more of a listicle. In summary, my team followed a series of pre-interviews with a study to understanding how 11 professional practitioners of culture building imagine the work. This has led to several posts, including one on the dimensions of culture that practitioners seem to converge on, and this one on the levers for culture change that practitioners seem to converge on.
There are more levers than qualities, and generally less agreement per lever, in terms of how many practitioners mentioned it. The greatest agreement on a single lever was 8/11, the least was 1/11, and I will work down to the qualities that were mentioned by 3/11 practitioners. That leaves 17 levers. I am erring on the side of inclusiveness here, with the thinking that there’s a good chance that several levers are effective and important despite the fact that they were only mentioned by a few practitioners.
I will work down these 17 levers from level of agreement. The ranking certainly implies agreement on the importance of a lever, but that may be different than ease-of-use, effectiveness, or other good qualities. I can honestly say that if you’d made me rank the 17 blindly in terms of which ones our informants would agree on, my ranking would be very different. So if you want to feel like this list is a surprise, and not obvious, keep in mind the counterfactual ranking that you would have produced. There is definitely something to be learned here (by me at least) in which tools ended up at the top:
- the importance of making people feel individually valued,
- the importance of leadership,
- the “physical” structure and affordances of the work environment,
and also which were at the bottom:
- psychological safety and
- PMing culture
The case of PM’ing culture is especially interesting. I’ve ended up elevating into a key insight, despite the lack of agreement that it is very important. The idea is that looking at culture work through the lens of decentralized organizations changes some of these rankings and priorities. I think it is an important and counterintuitive argument that culture work should be planned, and that decentralized organizations should plan it by creating leaders.
Here are the 17 qualities that I gathered, by level of convergence across practitioners:
- Care for / invest in / value individuals (mentioned by 8 informants)
- Big picture frame (7 informants)
- Good work environment (7)
- Leadership (6)
- Empowerment (Inclusive decision making and Autonomy) (6)
- Rituals/Habits (6)
- Monitoring (6; 2 event-based, 2 time-based, 2 event-based and time-based)
- PMing culture (5)
- Clear congruent roles (5)
- Working together/Teams (5)
- Safety (5)
- Tap prosocial psychological characteristics (4)
- Support personal relationships/bonds (4)
- Communication (3)
- Pick for fit (3)
- High standards/effectiveness (3)
- Ingroup/outgroup (3)
also: Support Happiness/fun (2), Conflict resolution (2), Fairness and transparency (2), Foster diversity (1), Onboarding (1)
To make these easier to wrangle and compare, I’ve collected them into four groups:
- “Pre-req” levers aren’t enough to create a strong culture, but they have to be in place for any targeted culture building work to be effective. Breathable air could be a pre-req lever, because you can’t build culture if everyone has asphyxiated.
- Direct levers have a direct affect on specific cultural dimension. How do you create shared behaviors? Do behaviors with other people at the same time. These capture the idea that some of the outputs of culture building can also be seen as inputs.
- Indirect levers are less specific in their effects, and may have a more complicated causal path to the dimensions they affect. Encouraging leadership roles doesn’t directly increase shared behavior, but it creates a role who can coordinate many participants into acting in a shared way.
- Peripheral levers are those that were not mentioned by many informants, but which I retained anyhow because they seemed worth including. They have the least evidence from the literature.
The number one area of agreement across culture building practitioners is that communities should invest actively in making individuals feel valued. Examples include norms of offering personal onboarding, access to community resources of value, and being proactive about uncovering latent community member needs that the community could serve. I don’t know if it is a pre-requisite or just helpful. There are many possible mechanisms by which valuing individuals could improve community, but one is that people are in a better position to see the community aligned with their personal pursuit of meaning if they are getting a message from the community that they have something unique offer, and even that they are valued enough to have a say in how the community might change to better align with the individual. Although I wouldn’t have thought this the most central of the levers, or really specifically the core of culture building, it is easy to see how this as a necessary prerequisite to several of the dimensions of culture, or as something that makes culture building easier to more it is in place.
One lever of culture change identified by almost 2/3 of practitioners is surprisingly mundane: provide a work environment that is functional, pleasant, comfortable, that supports all the kinds of work that have to be done in the community. This can refer to non-physical qualities of a work environment, like a low-pressure environment. In fact, if this lever is going to be useful to decentralized online communities, it has to refer to non-physical qualities. To interpret this for online spaces, I would say that it describes being intentional about the design of your Discord, or whatever platform you are on. Like “Value individuals” or, backing out even further, “Breathable Air,” this feels more like a “Step 0” prerequisite for a healthy culture than a particular targeted and incisive tool for crafting culture specifically.
There were some interesting tensions in this dimension. Two authors interpreted “work environment” to include opposite attitudes toward time. The book Peopleware emphasized a feeling of “low time pressure” that freed members to build to their own internal standards of pride and excellence, rather than to the minimal standard necessary to meet spec and ship product. By contrast, the book Happy to work here encouraged a more fraught and adversarial relationship to time, arguing that a sense of working (together) against the clock can cultivate a sense of togetherness. The disagreement is a sign that there is room to maneuver, that it may be more important for a community to have some attitude to time than for it to have one of these specific attitudes toward time.
Members of a community should have clear roles, orchestrated to prevent overlap and wasted effort. This is a very structural and low-level lever, also seemingly more of a pre-requisite to good culture change than a targeted tool. That said, it does seem to speak more directly to shared behavior than other qualities, because well-defined roles ensure that two people doing complementary work can experience the benefit of serving the whole by serving each other.
This is an umbrella term for a lot of concepts, including physical and social senses. On the physical side, one book in our sample focused on culture building in manufacturing organizations, where physical safety can be a concern, and attending to it can make people in an organization feel cared about and listened to (the bonds formed during unsafe situations (e.g. military teams during armed conflicts) seems to indicate that relative safety is more important than actual safety). On the psychological side, people should be spared a toxic work setting and, further, should ultimately granted the trust and latitude to take risks, make mistakes, and feel comfortable being vulnerable. Members suffering from the stress of economic scarcity, job insecurity, or other hard times may can also be seen as lacking the safety pre-requisite.
This seems obvious as a prerequisite except that its biggest boosters (such as Google’s researchers) treat it simultaneously as an input and output. I chose to treat it as an input (lever for culture building) rather than an output (fundamental dimension of strong culture) because it is more actionable than most dimensions. Even those who center it in culture building put most of the focus on the other beneficial effects to a community when safety is high.
To some extent, for all of the dimensions of culture there is a thing you can do to target that quality specifically. After highlighting active selection (“pick for fit”), the one lever that hits almost all of these dimensions, I go through five levers targeting the five dimensions fairly specifically.
A community doesn’t have a huge amount of control who joins it, but it has more control over that than over who its members become, and ultimately enough to make a difference. This can be through active selection, artful use of self-selection, or even differential rewards/attention to newcomers on the basis of their fit. This isn’t a direct lever for a specific culture dimension, it actually hits several of them.
Although lowest in the list in terms of mentions by culture building practitioners, selection for new members may be the highest leverage lever in the decentralized organization’s toolbox, not because it solves all problems, but easily because of the bang it offers for buck. Purpose, values, and identity can be broadcast in concise packages to attract people who already internalize the community’s core commitments and fundamental source of meaning. Bonding and trust can be selected for by focusing on word-of-mouth growth and incentivized recruitment of existing members’ outside friends and colleagues.
Big picture frame describes communications that connect the work of the community to its big picture aspirations for the world. This activity seems to serve “Shared purpose” fairly directly. How do you give people a sense that they are a part of working toward something larger that’s important for the world? Tell them, regularly, on signage, during onboarding, at meetings, and in how we recognize individuals.
3. Tap prosocial psych characteristics (for the dimension of “shared values and beliefs”; 4 mentions)
Although there is variation between individuals, humans are hardwired to exhibit weak but non-negligible preferences for the outcomes of others, via expressions such as altruism, fairness, reciprocity, and inequality aversion. These expressions are very sensitive to social context and training, and can be tuned up in environments that reward them, and nearly entirely suppressed in communities that punish them. Supporting them serves culture by making participation in the community personally rewarding (emotionally and even materially), building trust (by giving constituting evidence of trustworthiness), and by increasing the efficiency of the community toward its purpose (by leveraging the synergistic benefits of cooperation).
Signaling, selecting, and highlighting prosocial behavior ensures that the community’s shared values and beliefs includes values and beliefs that culturally encode cooperation.
Rituals and habits are a lever for culture building because they are an excellent tool for establishing, developing, and maintaining shared purpose, values, behavior, and even identity. Everything from “gm” to a formal conference closing. A majority of practitioners also emphasized the importance of this lever. Just as “Big picture frame” as a lever targets the “Shared purpose” dimension directly, this dimension speaks directly to “Shared behaviors.” The book “Rituals for Work” in our sample, by Ozenc and Hagan, is focused entirely on a catalogue of rituals by type.
A dense network interpersonal bonds and trust were named by the greatest number of practitioners as a fundamental dimension culture. But it is also one of the least actionable, in the sense that you can’t force community members to feel connected to a newcomer, or even bond to each other. Because it is based on the sum of the links between pairs of people, this lever is like voting: it is defined by small actions by lots of people (unlike a big picture framing of the work of the organization, which any single person can broadcast unilaterally). Like voting, that requirement for coherent distributed action suggests that, when it works, it’s because a strong, engaged culture is already in place, and that strong bons are much more an output than an input to culture. Still, practitioners generally treated it as something that could be attended to, through indirect means like encouraging water cooler culture, celebrating birthdays, and other mundane excuses for non-work social interaction. #random and #memes channels serve this function, as distinct from #kudos and #intro channels which are social and friendly, but more focused on the work of the org, rather than off-topic “third places” for developing a connection that envisions personal relationships with substance beyond the work context.
Emphasizing the community’s identity as an exclusive and distinct and important in-group is a basic and ubiquitous tool for building shared identity. This often comes with identifying an outgroup to contrast against, but that isn’t actually a necessary part of cultivating in-group feeling. It seems to be enough that the community can say “Unlike the rest of the world, we care about X and that is why we are the best place in the world for making Y happen.” I was a bit surprised that only 3 practitioners identified this as an important lever.
Leadership is what it sounds like. Over half of practitioners agree that an important part of fostering something bottom-up like culture is something top-down like leadership. It’s fair once you think about it. There are many things that a leader does that are not bossing people around. This is evident in how authors describe their leaders. They don’t mean just anyone: the concept seems to carry with it qualities like humility, trustworthiness, excellent communication, depending on the author. A leader can implement all of these levers: valuing people, instilling rituals, reminding people of the big picture, and monitoring shared resources. A leader can coordinate the activities of a team, leading to high morale through better synergy and less wasted effort. A leader is a focal point for information as well, and can play that role for emotional support, onboarding, conflict resolution, or any function that needs extra attention, or that isn’t yet fully in community hands. Most importantly, I’m offering levers here. For culture to change in a reliably beneficial way, someone has to be pulling those levers toward a goal. By doing so, that person is demonstrating a sense of ownership and collective responsibility that makes them a leader by definition.
So just like the dimension of “Shared values” is secretly “Good shared values”, the dimension of leadership is really “Good leadership.” More hints about the qualities of effective leadership can be gleaned from three qualities that Heskett identifies as really bad for culture:
frequent leadership turnover,
frequent reorganization, and
a loss of contact between the top and lower levels of management.
The implication here is that leaders should be very wary about seeing their mandate as “We’re going to completely turn things around.” That way of thinking can be a major threat to the things that a community’s culture is getting right. Being in touch with those things requires a leader who maintains strong connections to the “lowest levels” of a hierarchical organization. The analogy in a decentralized organization might be the newcomers. That could look like a norm that leaders are responsible for meeting and greeting new community members.
This item may be the least palatable for enthusiasts of decentralized organization. I see two responses. One is to swallow it, tempering decentralization enthusiasm with recognition that leaders have a role in decentralized organizations, as symbols, focal points, bottom-liners, buck stoppers, and pointers forward for the collective will. The other is to resist: can new mechanisms and technologies replace these less authoritarian but still distasteful functions that a leader fills? I see both being very productive and good for the community of decentralized communities.
As a lever for culture building, this item overlaps a bit with “PMing culture change” below.
I was pleasantly surprised to see at least a majority of practitioners endorse proactive involvement of individuals in organizational decision-making, either through inclusion in more decision-making processes or support for a high degree of autonomy. This is probably one of the most ideologically aligned levers for practitioners of decentralized organization design, so naturally DAOs and other decentralized organizations are implementing them by design. But an experience of many DAOs is that granting voting rights is not sufficient to attract meaningful involvement in decisionmaking. Access is enough for decision making that is technically inclusive and empowering (everyone can vote) but not for decision making that is inclusive and empowering in effect (every does vote). For community members to exercise their rights to participate in decisions, the community must also instill in members the importance of being an informed and active voter. An important aspiration; not easy, as evidenced by the poor voter participation typical of DAOs. When your nearest neighbor for voter engagement is the typical amount of shareholder engagement in corporate board elections, you are not meeting your values of flat structure and open engagement.
One strategy may be to support inclusion at many scales. Organization of the community around small inclusive teams scaffolds participation norms, and many other signatures of strong culture (see “Working together” below). Perhaps DAOs can increase voter turnout with more focus on inclusive decision making, on- or off-chain, at the team or working group levels.
Perhaps I should not have merged autonomy and shared decision making. My thinking is that they both reflect a commitment to empowerment of members, but they accomplish it in very different ways. It may be seen as conflicting with Leadership above, but the other side of it is that a user trusted with autonomy is being treated like a leader and is on track to gain those skills, whether or not they end up with anyone to lead.
About half of practitioners described monitoring as an essential tool for culture change. In me at least, this evokes the idea of monitoring community members for rule or norm violations, but the focus of practitioners was almost entirely on monitoring the progress of culture building initiatives, or closing the org’s information feedback loops generally. It is not enough to say “We’ve got to have more welcoming onboarding.” A community has to check in after its onboarding changes to see if those interventions are having the desired effect, or unintended consequences.
When they invoked monitoring, practitioners imagined two types in about equal proportion: periodic monitoring (checking in on your programs every month or so) and event-based monitoring (check in on your programs after a conflict, leadership change, or new program deployment). Like leadership, this feels a bit like it pieces out the complex of activities described in PMing culture change.
Culture change is a deviation from the status quo in a collectively intentional direction. Deviations from the status quo should be planned. Culture change does “just happen.” Specific, desired culture change does not. Heskett says it very well in “Win from Within”: “if you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.” Although this isn’t the most commonly mentioned lever for culture change, it has jumped out enough to me that I’ll be elaborating this point in its own post.
As I’ve come to see it, this lever forms a complex with three others: Monitoring, Communication, Empowerment and Leadership (every indirect lever except high standards), each of which satisfies a part of this one.
Use of small teams organizes the social system to ensure regular contact with a small group of the same people, enabling the fostering of peer-to-peer bonds and trust, the quality that the most authors identified as a fundamental dimension of the peer-to-community experience of culture. I can’t tell if this is obvious or not obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to me until I started seeing multiple authors mention it. Teams are also an efficient way of organizing work, and many practitioners, after working with a community to develop its goals for its culture, implement those goals by delegating them to teams in the organization. In how it develops, instills, and reinforces culture, the small goal-oriented group is a focal point of culture and a seemingly fundamental tool for building it in a community.
A design decision to include team work may or may not be a step in the direction of hierarchy (which may or may not be a bad thing: hierarchy has a place in the toolkit of decentralized organization design). Sociocracy gives example of structuring work in teams non-hierarchically.
Practitioners who name Communication as a lever of culture building tend to be thinking about broadcast communication from leadership. So they are to some extent taking a good quality of a leader and calling it a lever, but also to some extent pulling back to recognize that much of creating shared purpose, values, belief, behavior, and identity is making a habit of communicating those qualities to the community from the top-down. The use of top-down communication doesn’t imply that it’s better than bottom-up (which would be peer-to-peer expressions of these qualities). Both are good and important, but top-down gets highlighted as a lever because it’s actionable: for people taking responsibility for culture change a one-to-many top-down communication is the same cost as each peer-to-peer message; top-down is efficient and actionable. This lever was only highlighted by a few practitioners, maybe because it is implicit in so many of the others. I’m not counting it as a pre-requisite because of how practitioners focused on broadcast specifically (to the exclusion of peer-to-peer, which is most of communication, and the least actionable or controllable). But I do consider this less actionable in the sense that it is so vague as to prescribe virtually everything as an act of culture building.
This is an interesting lever: especially indirect but illuminating to think through. Several practitioners observed that communities could strengthen their cultures by focusing on producing very high quality outputs (products, software, studies, results, whatever it is the community makes). There isn’t much agreement on the mechanism, probably because there are a lot of routes from norms of excellence to strong culture. But put most simply, if people are encouraged to build to their own internal standard, a standard that is based on making a personally meaningful contribution to the world, then their work with others in the community to that standard will create strong bonds, and reinforce their shared purpose, values, and identity. The book Peopleware put particular emphasis on the importance of minimizing time pressure and letting community members meet their own standards and build something they’re proud of.
Aside from the major levers that were mentioned by several authors, there is no limit to the number of cute suggestions that were just mentioned once or twice. A few jumped out to me for being general or obvious enough that they should have been mentioned more, or for fitting my preconceptions. You can take these as additional tools worth considering or things that aren’t. From the evidence of the practitioners they are either not as important as you’d think or not as popular as you’d think. These include the value of fostering happiness and fun (2), the value of having intentional conflict resolution mechanisms (2), the value of fairness and transparency in how people in leadership positions operate, the value of diversity (broadly construed), and the value of intentional onboarding. This of course isn’t to say that diversity and onboarding and those others things were never mentioned more than once or twice in the 2000+ pages of these books, just that they weren’t centered by more than one or two authors in the mental models that each book implies. If your pet property is here and didn’t make it higher in the listings, there is still plenty of room for you to be right. Eleven books is a lot of books but not that many. For any quality you name, I’m certain I could find a management book that centers it in culture building. I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing. This kind of research inherently has the fault and the benefit that you’re totally free to think what you think and be able to find evidence in support of it without even having to look very hard. Why that’s a fault is clear: it’s bad science if you can always satisfy your preconceptions. But I call it a benefit because if there aren’t answers, and if so much of this is an art, it should be clear that you have license to explore your own answers, and be an artist. The thing that most excites me about DAOs is that they vastly accelerate our ability to explore the space of possible communities, and come to fundamentally new understandings of what brings people together around shared purpose, values, behaviors, and identity.
Thank you for your ideas and engagement.