10 Characteristics of a Great Organizational Culture

In our first post, we indulged in a thought experiment. We asked, “Why have the rules of business changed so much, and why do we need to transform the culture of our organizations?” We concluded that there are 3 cultural pillars that need to be in place to avoid fizzle-out and to thrive in the 21st century:  autonomy, people > profit, & engagement. This post is a bit more tactical. What does this look like in daily work-life?

In the interest of time, here are the 10 traits of a great organizational culture. We will dive into each trait, one at a time, throughout future posts.


1)Physical Spaces & Co-Location

Old: I’m not sitting next to the people I work with daily to get things done. The spaces only cater to 1 working mode, versus catering to the different work scenarios I encounter during the week (or simply catering to my health & enjoyment).

New: Everyone needed to get the job done are here, sitting next to each other (or continuously available via digital mediums). I have the ability to sit or stand, use a computer or whiteboard, have privacy or pairing.


2) Product Orientation & Collaboration

Old: I’m spread thin across many projects. My team is pitted against other groups I need to partner with, and I’m required to submit forms and attend forums to gain access to those other groups/resources (not to mention the politics & leader priorities).

New: I’m on 1 team with 1 clear product that we own. All of us on the team know our singular mission. All the skills needed to accomplish our mission are on the team and we have support from our leaders. They shield us from requests that are not mission-critical, and they use their time and position to remove obstacles in our way.


3) Agile & Self-sufficient Teams

Old: Things move slowly. Delivering work happens in a waterfall fashion. Hierarchy impedes my ability to get things done. Rework is frequent because requirements change during projects and communication is lacking on the team and with stakeholders. If I’m honest, I spend most of my day reacting to emails and running between meetings with no clear purpose. You mine as well re-word my job description to “Senior Email Reader”.

New: Things move fast. We iterate through work to learn and adapt as we go. We’re providing value to the customer right when we find out what they want, or even before. I have ownership to make decisions about my work, and do it daily in real-time. I feel part of a team, and we enjoy working together. We talk on a daily basis, solve problems together (versus competing against each other), and spend a very small amount of time on paperwork and processes.


4) Servant Leadership

Old: My leader decides what we should work on, and tells us occasionally. I rarely talk with my leaders and wonder what they spend their time doing. I feel like my leadership doesn’t know me, and doesn’t understand my work. In fact, I think I could provide much more value to the team, but don’t have the opportunity or don’t think they know what I’m passionate about and capable of. Things flow from the top, down. The leaders always want status updates from us, but we never get any help from them.

New: I feel invested-in by my leaders, and it makes me want to work here and tell everyone about this company. I see and talk with my leaders often, and it’s clear that they are committed to & consistently showing us where we’re headed. They have a vision and stick to it. They keep us focused on the top priority, listening to us and acting to remove our barriers. My leaders encourage personal growth and provide opportunities for me to learn – even if it has nothing to do with my current responsibilities. They see me as a person, not a resource. And because of that, I pour my heart into this job.


5) Focus, Simplicity, & Fun

Old: There are many competing priorities, which are always changing. It feels like we are short-sighted and leadership is always wanting MORE. It kind of sucks the life out of you, and I know that’s common because I always hear about burnout & complaining. I’m always trying to figure out who I need to talk to, trying to convince people why they should care about my work. I’m so stressed out because I run from meeting to meeting, email to email.

New: I laugh a lot at work. It’s fun because we accomplish a lot. It’s kind of intense, but in an all-hands-on-deck kind of way. We’re in it together. I’m friends with the people on my team. We know what to work on every day, and spend more time creating value than navigating red tape & overhead activities.

old new culture


6) Design Thinking

Old: We basically do what we’ve always done. I tend to work on stuff just because it’s been on the backlog the longest. Or, I do whatever my boss thinks is best.

New: We’re always innovating. We start by talking to our customers to understand their needs. We spend a lot of time generating the key insights from that research. We think big and outside the way we normally think about things. We test ideas iteratively with customers, and get feedback. Our products and services are dictated by human needs, and I’m always thinking about the type of customer I’m building for.


7) Customer-back Thinking & UX

Old: We maximize for profit margin or for system efficiency. I usually work on things that help us improve our numbers or make our company more efficient. I don’t think these things are bad, but I don’t really understand what my purpose is here.

New: We maximize for value to humans, and build our business strategy from there. I know what this company’s mission is and talk about it often. I feel a ton of purpose in my work because it’s contributing to people’s lives through our company mission. We always ask how our customers experience our product/service, and use that as the starting point for our design and decisions.


8) Roles

Old: My role has very little to do with the value I create, and more to do with the Org Chart. Everything is individual-based, so even though we all work for the same company, we’re actually competing against each other. I have to look out for myself and my end-of-year rating. My role is set in stone – it would be very hard to re-brand myself or try something new. Basically, my boss defines what I can do.

New: My role is very team-based. I have my areas of strength, but my team all pitches in to do whatever is needed. It’s fun because we’re always learning from each other and expanding our knowledge & skills. I’m more of a professional learner than anything, which is great since the world changes so fast now. I don’t actually care about my title that much because my role is defined by the problems we’re solving and the mission we’re on. I feel like a part owner in this company. I make important decisions every day, and I know the value I’m adding.


9) Growth & Development

Old: I don’t receive reinforcing & constructive feedback until the end of the year. It’s a bit punitive – just about what I did wrong or could’ve done better. If they would’ve told me during the year, I could’ve worked on improving throughout. The focus is usually on what others want us to learn. And the things I can try and experiment with are confined to a narrow window based on my current responsibilities. Our system basically ranks people against each other, and assigns numbers to us. I feel boxed in.

New: Our culture is very freeing. It’s like I’m paid to learn and explore new ideas. My manager asks me what I want to learn, even if it’s outside my current role. We are mission-driven, and give each other continuous feedback to improve and grow. I continue to be a better person because I work here, and it makes me a big advocate to my friends & family. My teammates help me develop and I even get to decide who I report to.


10) Smart Risk-taking / Failure as Learning

Old: We avoid risk at all costs. Failure is seen as failure, so you have to have everything buttoned up before you walk into a meeting or presentation. It’s hard to innovate, because there’s an unwritten rule that you need to have all the answers. If I tried anything new and failed, it would ruin my reputation, or at lease reflect poorly in my performance review.

New: We embrace risks. Failure, to us, is learning. We realize we’re a team, so we are honest and open with each other. It’s so great because I can be myself, and not have to be anxious and stressed about work. For us, it’s a sign of strength if someone comes to the table with questions.

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