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Culture only thrives when we fuel it

Culture is a living, breathing thing. And like all living things, it requires nourishment to thrive.

What you see on the laminated page is not your company culture. It’s an aspiration. It’s like a photo of a marathon runner. That photo represents something you’d like to achieve. But to make that marathon happen, your body needs the right fuel.

So what then is the carb-loading equivalent for culture? How do we nourish our aspiration to make it be so? And more specifically, how do we do so as we continue to navigate our ever-shifting normal?

You nourish culture with concrete actions and behaviors that allow it to thrive; actions and behaviors that support, align to, and enable the desired outcomes we see in our culture model.

Your culture statement may stand upon pillars like innovation, agility, customer-focus, integrity, or collaboration. Or perhaps your leadership team has selected other values. But innovation, for example, doesn’t come to life with the flip of a switch. It must be nourished to thrive.

So if innovation is one of your culture pillars, then how are you fueling it? As a runner may require strength, stamina, and open space, innovation too has its requirements. These may include:

  • Time – do we grant our teams time in their weeks to simply sit and wonder?
  • Space – do we offer the forums necessary for innovative discussion to happen?
  • Incentives – do we reward true creativity, even when it fails?
  • Safety – do we offer a psychologically safe space in which people can speak even the “dumb” ideas and questions that may lead to the big idea?
  • Stories – do we highlight examples of innovation as it’s happening (both big and small!) so our teams understand what it looks and feels like for us?
  • Connection – do we drive connection across our teams and organizations so the cross-pollination of ideas can happen?
  • Tools – particularly as we continue to reinvent how we work in this shifting-normal, do our teams have the technology and tools required to tap into innovation?

The list may go on – and it will look different for each pillar holding up your model. From here, determine where your gaps are (perhaps it’s time and incentives?) and identify the most concrete, observable actions and behaviors changes to which you will commit. These become the fuel that feed your culture.

Just a few of the many actions I’ve seen clients choose over the years include:

  • Leaders begin a brainstorm with the “dumbest” question possible in order to demonstrate safety. This, in turn, opens the floodgates of creativity
  • Eliminate meetings on Friday afternoons so employees have a dedicated window for learning, reading, exploring, and imagining
  • Post slideshows on their intranet highlighting the tiny increments of innovation so people recognize it comes in all shapes and sizes
  • Establishing a reward program for the “bold and thoughtful” to incentivize big thinking over taking the safe and well-trodden path

All of the above is designed to be illustrative. So what do I want you to take away? Simply this: Consider the culture you strive to unleash and ask yourself: does that aspiration have the nourishment it needs to thrive? And if not…what can I do to change that today?