Since the start of my career in technology I have been keenly aware of the role culture has in the success of a business. I remember my first week working in Silicon Valley, as Friday afternoon rolled around, pizzas arrived at the office and family members and company associates appeared. I realised I had entered a different world to the silent, grey offices I had worked in before. As that business was acquired by Cisco Systems, I went on a journey as they swept in many other high growth technology businesses, as Cisco pursued a path that lead them to becoming the most valuable company on the planet.

On that journey I saw the good and the great, as well as the not so great, in the many businesses I worked with. There were patterns in what worked and what did not; what was clear was the central role culture – “how we do things here” – played in the ultimate success or failure of each business. It led me to the question behind this blog: how do you measure culture?

Culture certainly has some observable elements, but for the most part it feels intangible and invisible. It has parallels, perhaps, with the wind, which we can’t observe directly, but know is there; we see its impact on trees, we hear it howling round buildings and we feel it brushing against us. Just as we can set up mechanisms to monitor the wind – wind vanes to tell us its direction, anemometers to measure its speed, and sensors to detect humidity – we can also set up mechanisms to monitor culture.

If culture is so critical and is able to be measured, then why don’t all organisations do so? The experiences of a decade of measuring culture has led me to three key reasons why many organisations don’t:

  • Lack of awareness. Many people simply aren’t aware of the ability to measure, nor of the importance of doing so. Yet the impact of what’s known as closed-loop measurement in managing complex systems has been demonstrated time and time again, from the world of healthcare to that of combat pilots. It is not a trivial undertaking, but it is eminently achievable and proven to be effective.
  • Fear of what will be found out.  I refer to this as “FoMO” – not the Fear of Missing Out, but the Fear of Measurement Outputs. In the world of culture measurement there are two approaches: the first is to demonstrate how successful you are; the second is to enable improvement and show where iteration and change are required. While the first is eagerly sought, the second is a medicine which requires bold leadership and a willingness to change. At SocialOptic we often talk about having “grown up conversations” – sometimes the data shows us things we would rather not see. Growth comes from facing those challenges and building strategies based on the reality of the situation. If you try to navigate from a map designed simply to be visually attractive at the expense of being accurate, you will quickly lose your way, oblivious to how lost you are becoming. 
  • Looking to the wrong metrics as indicators of success. Revenue, year on year growth, employee and customer retention are all good, solid metrics but they are also all lagging indicators. They are familiar and comfortable, but ultimately flawed when used in isolation because they only tell you what has already happened. Think of it as looking in your rear-view mirror when you’re driving; to navigate safely you also need to be looking ahead, through the windshield. Lagging indicators alone are not sufficient for either strategic or tactical decision making.

“If you want to understand the future, ask the people who are making it.”

John C. Maxwell

It’s likely you’ve already recognised that measuring culture is important, so the next question is how to do it. The answer is ‘the wisdom of crowds.’ A concept popularised by James Surowiecki in his 2004 book of the same name, it’s been around in some form for a long time. It’s based on the idea that large groups of people are collectively smarter than individual experts when it comes to problem solving, innovation and predicting.  Correctly apply the wisdom of crowds to measure culture and you find that asking people what they think, in aggregate, becomes a powerful indicator that is both sensitive and responsive.  Note though, it does need to be correctly applied and this means being aware of two potential pitfalls: using the wrong type of measurement and prematurely trying to standardise the tools being used.

The wrong type of measurement: broadly speaking, there are three types of measurement – descriptive, diagnostic and predictive. Most organisational measurement has historically been descriptive. However, measuring culture requires both diagnostic and predictive measurements, which identify how the current reality was arrived at and indicate the likely direction of travel, in the absence of intervention. The correct suite of measures tells you when, where and how to apply resource to create the right kind of change.

Premature standardisation: people often seek a standard tool, or a standard set of questions, and a global benchmark to measure themselves against. Industrialisation has indoctrinated us into the idea that universals and standardisation always deliver efficiency; that using the same component across multiple systems reduces costs and improves quality. While these ideas might apply well to manufacturing and logistics, they simply don’t apply to human systems. Today, the time in London is the same as the time in Bristol, but go back just 150 years and this concept disappears. Bristol and London operated on their own time zones, based on local sunrise and sunset times. It was the advance of the railways which necessitated one standard UK time.  Yet if you applied that concept across your offices in New York and London so they both ran to GMT, I suspect, not only would there be a large number of complaints, but accidents would go up and productivity would go down.

It’s the same for organisational measurement, which can be thought of more as a sundial in the way it operates. To work, sundials are oriented based on where they are used and the most effective sundials are specifically designed for where they are situated. In the same way, cultural measurement needs to be designed and adapted to the organisational context it operates within, both in terms of the prevailing values and culture, but also in terms of the stage and state of the organisation. The objective is actionable insights, not a complex set of measurements designed for lowest-common-denominator adoption.

Culture, however invisible or intangible it may seem, is measurable. At its simplest, building a set of success measures to understand what is working, and a set of impact measures to understand what creates change, will provide an impactful way to improve the development of your organisation. If you pause for a few minutes to think of even one just question you could ask everyone in the organisation, you would likely come up with an interesting measure. If you had everyone in the organisation pause every so often, for just a few minutes, to answer that question, I am also sure you’d be at the start of a journey to transforming your culture in ways far beyond what you might have thought possible.

You might also be interested in our podcast episodes:
Company culture, people experience and remote working, with Matt Partovi
Culture, strategy and change, with Alison Minns

and our blog posts on: Culturalising Technology and Closed Loop Measurement