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Fire Your Culture Consultants and Ask Yourself These 3 Questions Instead

Company culture isn’t a project. Don’t treat it like one.

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BY Dom Price - 01 Dec 2017

Fire Your Culture Consultants and Ask Yourself These 3 Questions Instead

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Another day, another C-suite waking up to the fact that they're actually a "people business". Because they're reliant on people. (Duh...) This realization - often heralded by a new CEO or as a reaction to terrible results in the marketplace - compels the senior execs to embark on a cultural transformation program fueled by millions of dollars' worth of consulting hours.

There's nothing wrong with putting culture first. But the impulse to invest heavily "organizational transformation" consultants is exactly that: an impulse. What the company needs is a thoughtful response.

If you're one of these execs, turn your gaze inward. Before spending another penny on outside help, ask yourself these three questions.

1. Did we hire idiots, or create them?

If your culture stinks, determine whether you hired the wrong people or if good people took on a certain odor after walking in your door. Both are common, but the paths forward are different.

If it turns out you've been hiring idiots, get rid of them. It's no fun (nor is it a quick process), but don't be gutless. If an employee isn't a good fit, you're both better off going separate ways. Then find someone to revamp your hiring process who shares your idea of what a good culture looks like.

But if you've been creating cultural idiocy, take a serious look at yourself and your leaders. Are you functioning well as a leadership team? (Here's an eight-point team health assessment to help you find out.) Make sure you're setting the right tone.

Then turn the idiots you created back into the high-potential people you once hired. Do more listening than talking. Find out what they love about the company, and what they loathe or long for.

For extra credit, empower your people to be the change they seek on a small scale. That'll free you and your leadership team up to tackle the big picture stuff. You might see some innovative practices spring up around the company.

2. Are we changing the right thing?

Culture is an outcome, just like the score of a game is an outcome. If you're unsatisfied with your culture, don't waste time debating what's on the scoreboard. Instead, seek to understand what got you there, then start training for the next match.

Culture manifests from a variety of inputs: people, their values, and the practices they adopt. At Atlassian, we emphasize hiring people with the right set of values and incorporate a values interview into the hiring process. Once hired, we reinforce positive behaviors by allowing peers to recognize and reward each other for living those values.

Fostering a good company culture is a continuous cycle of reflecting, learning, and improving as you move forward. Focus on getting the inputs to culture right, and the results will follow. Don't bother trying to change last week's game.

3. What's our goal?

Ok, this is a trick question. (Sorry.)

The problem with typical transformation programs is they're designed to be finite. But culture isn't a project. There's no finish line to cross. It's more like a muscle that you exercise and hone. And, like a muscle, it'll atrophy if you slack off.

The key to thriving is to adopt new ways of working to match an ever-changing environment. This might mean embracing remote work so you can take advantage of a larger talent pool. It might mean opening up information across the company so teams aren't slowed down by lack of access. If you're really serious, it might even mean re-thinking your own role.

Don't scan the horizon looking for a signal that you've "solved" culture and can move on to something else. There won't be one. But if you notice your people making decisions autonomously or sharing lessons learned, you're on the right track.

Culture changes, values don't

Like everything else about your business, culture is subject to change. The way you work today is different from when you were 3 people, and it'll be different still when you're 3,000. The trick to maintaining healthy culture through it all is to build a strong foundation of values that inform daily rituals and decisions. One of our values at Atlassian is "Don't #@!% the customer", which will stay with us forever. How we live by it changes as we grow.

It's not only about leaders or only about front-line staff. Each person owns the culture and influences it. Make sure actions stem from a set of values you all hold dear, and you'll bring about a culture everyone can be proud of.