Applying a human-centered design approach to workplace culture

Can you design a workplace culture? I get asked that question a lot. Whether from the CEO of one of our clients to readers or Masterclass participants, everyone is both intrigued and somehow skeptical about the idea.

Many people believe that culture is intangible and organic; that it cannot be intentionally designed. Every organization has a culture, either by default or by design. However, as designer Robert Peters said, “Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.”

Intentionally-designed cultures not only increased employee engagement, but also delivered stronger business results. Research by Glassdoor shows that organizations selected as Best Places to Work outperform their competitors. According to their study, the compounded gap in stock performance is substantial. The investment return in a BPTW (553%) organization more than doubles that of the S&P 500 Index (258%).

A successful company culture doesn’t happen by accident; they are designed and built with purpose and intent. In this post, I will explain the approach to create yours, plus links to more in-depth posts on how to do it and the necessary toolkit.

Applying Human-Centered Design to Company Culture

The world of product management has dramatically changed in the past decade or so. The rapid adoption of Design Thinking transformed businesses by developing a human-centered approach to creating new products, services, and solutions.

Most importantly, it made the design process more deliberate. In the past, the people were involved at the final stage (validation) to see whether or not they accepted the final solution.

Human-Centered Design is a creative approach that starts with the people you are designing for and ends with new solutions. It’s all about building deep empathy with the people you’re designing for in order to discover compelling human stories that can generate tons of ideas, prototype, and refine the solution through various iterations.

Compare this to how culture is managed in most organizations. Instead of a deliberate design process, company culture usually just happens. It’s an afterthought; it occurs by accident or by default. Even those organizations that put some thought into it, they fail to include their employees (the user) in the process – defining the culture is limited to a few people from HR or senior management.

The idea that a company culture is organic, happens naturally, or freely emerges – although true – allows leaders to miss a huge opportunity. They fail to leverage the power of human-centered design which they’re already applying to other areas such as product design or innovation.  

Company culture design should be treated just as intentionally as designing a new product. It should start and end with the user in mind, turning it into a co-creation process.

Some critics confuse designing a culture with the notion of forcing people into adopting an artificial, imposed version. I will explain how, the act of co-creation, neutralizes that argument. For now, let me share a metaphor I use with my clients and students.

Once Japanese landscapers have designed a park, they let people walk freely without having a clearly defined walkway. Rather than deciding which path is the right one, they allow people to walk and find (design) the paths. After some time, by looking at where the grass had worn away, they paved those favorite paths.

Culture design is not about imposing a path but setting the framework and building it through continuous input from other people.

The Case for Workplace Culture Design

Whether you are responsible for an organization or a team, you must become aware of your culture; sense the changes needed, work with your people to co-create the culture, and shift it from good to great.

A culture-by-default is one that happens without much thought. This is either because no one spent time designing it, or because leaders believe that having a vision/ mission/ purpose statement and a few core values is enough.

An intentionally designed culture, on the other hand, requires first mapping your current state, understanding the gaps between different areas (business units, department, hierarchies, etc.), defining the desired state, and creating a roadmap to get there through constant experimentation and iteration.

Great design goes unnoticed. When you do it right, people won’t notice the process or effort behind it.

After decades of experiences in the marketing, innovation, and leadership world, I realized that workplace culture is the biggest obstacle to move new ideas forward. Organizations put a lot of focus on developing new solutions (innovation as a product or service) but fail to create a conducive environment that will facilitate and accelerate those ideas (a culture of innovation).

That’s when I asked myself, how might we apply a human-centered approach to design company culture, too?

After years of experimenting and iterations, I came up with the Culture Design Canvas – a simple-to-use framework that sparks people-centered and actionable conversations about culture.

Inspired by Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, I created a tool that could serve the same purpose but to develop successful company cultures instead of solutions. Just like the BMC, the Culture Design Canvas helps visualize your whole culture in just one page.

Company Culture Is More than a Set of Values

While researching to develop our cultural framework, the most important realization was the various interpretations and definitions of what culture is.

Many people still use the word “soft” to refer to culture. Not only do they fail to capture its totality, but keep promoting the idea of culture as something fluffy, and disconnected from business performance.

People often want to write culture off as free perks such as ping-pong tables, free beer, and fancy food. However, culture is about creating an environment that brings out the best in people balancing mindsets and emotions with desired behaviors.

I won’t get into the specifics in this post– I wrote about the various definitions of culture here – but I want to share the criteria behind our specific approach.

The Culture Design Canvas captures three areas that we identified as critical to designing a company culture. We came to this realization after using it to map many existing successful cultures, as well as helping our clients map and design theirs.

The three areas are:

  • The Core
  • The Emotional Culture
  • The Functional Culture

The Core is the foundation of your culture; it defines what your company stands for. Of course, it includes Purpose and Core Value, but also puts a specific emphasis on living the culture.

Culture is the behaviors we reward and punish, what organizations do or do not tolerate, and what can get someone promoted or fired. At Netflix or Slack, no matter how smart you are, being a jerk will get you fired. That’s why we added the Behaviors that are rewarded and punished to the CDC.

We also included key cultural priorities to make it more transparent when something is valued in terms of making decisions. For example, Zappos prioritizes wowing their customers even over profit.

Emotional Culture plays a key role in any organization. Every company has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression, as Sigal Barsade explains.

The three critical blocks of this section are how companies promote Psychological Safety, create a culture of Feedback, and design Team Rituals.

Lastly, an element that many people don’t consider when addressing their culture is what we call the Functional Culture. This includes Norms and Rules (both written and not), Decision-Making, and the culture of Meetings.

If you want to learn about the different elements of the Culture Design Canvas and how to facilitate it, check out this post. I wanted to explain why we believe you need to go way beyond values when designing the culture.

Now, let’s discuss how to build your culture design through a co-creation experience.

Culture Design Is A Co-Creation Practice

Why have one person or committee responsible for creating a workplace culture​ intended for the whole company? It doesn’t make any sense. 

One of the things that (positively) surprise our clients and those who attend our Culture Design Masterclasses is the democratization of culture design. We believe everyone should participate and contribute to the process. Even though company culture should become CEOs’ number one priority, that doesn’t mean they should own it.

Successful organizations understand the value of co-creation. When Airbnb realized that people couldn’t even remember their core values, the leadership team decided it was time to cut the list down. Rather than simply choosing their preferred ones, the company invited every employee to be part of the selection process.

By asking for feedback on which values inflated or deflated Airbnb’s culture, everyone chimed in. Not only were the top-four inflators selected based on people’s feedback, but the company learned a lot about what drives (or not) its employees. Most importantly, it sparked a conversation that helped to separate meaningful values from those that just looked good but didn’t connect to actual behaviors.

There are many ways to involve people throughout the process. One is to approach people as users; to incorporate their point of view from the get-go and throughout the entire design journey.

We like to create multiple hybrid teams that work in parallel paths to map the current state and then design the desired company culture. It’s vital to bring in a mix of people who represent multiple perspectives.

Having someone familiar with the company’s history should be complemented by also inviting a new employee who has fresh eyes. Culture fans’ perspectives should be balanced with those that are more critical and address issues that others don’t want to talk about. CEOs and senior executives tend to have a more beautified version of the culture; incorporating people from other areas and levels helps to bring a more realistic view to the table.

When it comes to decision-making, the CEO/ Exec Team usually should have the final word on it regardless of getting input from anyone. However, people should also have more freedom in designing the key elements of both the Emotional and Functional culture sides, especially when it comes to team culture or other subcultures.

Involving people in the process has another key benefit: you don’t need to convince them to buy into the new culture. They already have a sense of ownership as they played an active role during the design phase.

Create Your Company Culture by Design

Your workplace culture can happen by accident or by design. It’s up to you. However, as I previously stated, research clearly shows that those organizations that intentionally craft their culture are the ones who deliver better results.

Having a human-centered design approach to culture is critical to focus on the end-user: your employees (current and future) and not just on what looks suitable for senior executives or HR. As Japanese industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa said, “Great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.”

Culture design is a never-ending job. It needs nurturing, addressing cultural tensions, and giving it room to breathe and evolve. Invite your team to co-create your culture. You will be surprised by the results when people actively co-design what the company stands for.

If you have questions or need us to help facilitate your culture design process, please reach out.  

In the meantime, follow these three steps to learn how to design workplace culture:

Step 1: If you haven’t already, make sure to check out our free Culture Design Toolkit (we’re always adding new tools)

Step 2: Improve your knowledge by reading my blog with over 500 articles on leadership and culture

Step 3: Sign up for a Culture Design Masterclass

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