The Work of Culture Means Answering 3 Questions

December 2, 2021
December 2, 2021 Jamie Notter

Everyone wants a great culture, but not everyone is willing to put in the work to make it happen. Part of the problem, however, is that people don’t really understand what the work of culture really is. As long as we think that “culture” is this amorphous blob of things we don’t know how to do, we’ll avoid it. The truth is, the work of culture is simple and clear. I’ve boiled it down to 3 questions:

  1. What is your culture?
  2. Why is your culture that way?
  3. How do you create/maintain that culture?

Answer the what, why, and how questions, and you’re doing the work of culture. The level of depth you give to your answers will determine how much your culture will drive results in your organization.

For example, you can answer the “what” question in terms of high level core values. What is your culture? “We value honesty, integrity, trust, and collaboration.” That’s fine, and your people will have a positive sentiment about the culture because those are all good things. But that is unlikely to drive results, because everyone already agreed with those values coming in, so they don’t really guide behavior.

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If you go a bit deeper, however, you’ll start to impact results. What if you realized that you had a clear pattern in your culture where collaboration was definitely important, but really only at an individual level. People help each other out all the time, but rarely outside of their own team or department. Yet the times when the organization had the biggest impact were when collaboration was happening across departments.

Answering the “what” question would then be more detailed: “Our culture places a high value on cross-functional collaboration. Everyone works on cross-functional teams, and we even redesigned our office space to be more open so people will more naturally be aware of what’s going on in other areas. If you’re the kind of person who wants to put on their headphones and work in solitude, you won’t like it here.”

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Choosing to go deeper in how you answer the “what” question will create a culture that is more effective. You have the same choice to make in how you answer the “why” and “how” questions. Go deep, and you’ll have an amazing culture. All of our consulting projects help our clients go deep on these three questions.




Photo by Brett Jordan

Jamie Notter

Jamie is an author and growth strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders integrate culture, strategy, and execution to achieve breakthrough performance and impact. He brings twenty-five years of experience to his work designing culture-driven businesses, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is also the co-author of three books—Humanize, When Millennials Take Over, and The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement—and holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.
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