What I Learned From 1.15 Million Culture Data Points

April 20, 2020
April 20, 2020 Jamie Notter

I started March of 2020 bracing myself for a three-month gauntlet of travel to client sites and conferences. It happens every spring, actually. Thanks to the pandemic, of course, that didn’t happen this year. One by one, the meetings were cancelled or postponed. But one of the upsides of this business disruption is that I suddenly had several multiple-day stretches of unscheduled, unstructured time (which never happens).

I didn’t want to waste this opportunity, so for my first project, I opened up the massive spreadsheet that contained every single answer to every single WorkXO culture assessment that we’ve ever conducted. It has 1.15 million data points, within nearly 18,000 individually completed surveys, from 57 different organizations, all of which completed the assessment between 2016 and mid-2019. We didn’t design this as a full-on research project, but the combined experience of 18,000 employees is nothing to sneeze at.

So in the spirit of social distancing, I sat in front of my computer for the better part of the past two weeks to figure out what all these data points were telling us. And remember, analyzing these culture data is nothing new to me. I’ve been debriefing clients on their assessment results on a regular basis since 2016. My approach in those debriefs has been to shine a light on the key culture patterns that I see. I believe strongly that the real secret to culture is in understanding the patterns, not trying to narrow down the specific characteristics of the perfect culture. There is no single, perfect culture. But there are patterns that we need to see—patterns that mess with our success, and weaken engagement.

Below are some of my preliminary findings. Clearly this is going to take some more thinking and analyzing, but there have been a few things that have become clear in my first pass through the data:

Finding: Our cultures are misaligned with what makes us successful.

I suppose that was obvious, but it was nice to have some hard data to back it up. The way we have designed our cultures is consistently inconsistent. That is, there are some elements of the culture that we have clearly invested in as organizations—they are very present in the experience of employees, and they are even consistently experienced throughout the organization. Examples: Sharing the workload, Customer influence, Information credibility, and Trust.

But here’s the interesting part: half of these areas matter to employees, and half don’t. The data indicate that Information credibility and Trust are tightly aligned with what employees think drives their success, yet Sharing the workload and Customer influence are not on employees’ radar. It’s not that they think we SHOULDN’T share the workload or listen to customers, it’s just those elements of the culture are not the priority for the people inside the culture. Across the board, our cultures are hit and miss when it comes to aligning the priorities.

Finding: There are dominant patterns in each of our 8 Culture Markers.

I knew there would be some clear patterns, simply based on the number of times I was pointing to the same pattern as I was debriefing clients with their data. If you’ve seen me speak on culture, I almost always use the client example around innovation—valuing the concepts of innovation (Creativity, Future focus) more than the tactics (Experimentation, Testing new ideas). I expected that one to show up (and it did). But I was a bit surprised to see how strong the patterns were in all 8 markers. Each marker had an areas that was clearly more present in the cultures, compared to a related area that was clearly less present.

I’m still working on how to articulate the patterns, but “innovation mindsets are more present than innovation tactics,” as mentioned above, is one of them. We also have “personal inclusion matters more than systemic inclusion,” and “transparent relationships are more present than systemic transparency.” Oh, and I did a cross-cutting analysis and found two additional patterns related to “agency” and “capacity,” that I’m now including as dominant patterns.

Finding: The dominant patterns do not reveal the path, but they illuminate the map.

I bet some of you out there wanted me to announce that we have discovered the perfect culture. That by digging into the data, we now realized exactly what you need to do when it comes to innovation, inclusion, transparency, or collaboration. But I’ve already said it: There is no perfect culture—you have to design yours intentionally to be carefully aligned with what drives your success, in your context. The data won’t solve this; you have to.

But while the patterns won’t give you the answer, they can be a really valuable resource as you’re making your choices about culture. They won’t dictate which path you need to take in designing a great culture, but they are illuminating the map for you, so you’re not choosing the path in the dark. The dominant culture patterns, combined with how aligned or misaligned they are with success drivers, will crystallize the questions you need to answer—the choices you need to make—to create a powerful culture.

We’re now working on articulating those questions as well, but when you find a strong pattern that is aligned with employee priorities, you’ll still have to decide: Should this be an anchor for our culture, or are we all just chasing a shiny object? And for the areas for which both the culture and your people have assigned a lower priority: Is it okay to keep this on auto pilot, or could this be a painful blind spot?

I’m excited about where this research is taking us. At the very least, we now have a robust set of benchmarking data for our clients, so they can see in more detail how their analytics compare to the overall data set. For the record, that’s NOT so they can copy the averages—it’s so they can see their own patterns better. But you’ll have to be a client to see those benchmarks! But we are planning to share our findings and analysis with everyone, we just don’t know in what format yet (Podcast? Private webinar? A new book?). Stay tuned for more on that.

Photo by Pietro Jeng on Unsplash

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.