The topic of defining the cultural attributes of a company culture came up in a recent Anthropology of Product Management (#aopm) discussion on Twitter. There was also an earlier discussion about this on Linked In AOPM discussion group. The ideas that Art Petty and Pattie Vargas contributed to this discussion served as a starting point for my post. Thanks Art and Pattie for jump starting my thinking on this.
Cultural attributes are characteristics that define a culture. The idea is that you can use cultural attributes to help solve cultural problems. These problems, which are really people problems, can be anything from understanding a audience for a product to understanding how different groups interact in an organization. Many product and organizational problems are actually cultural problems, although they are often disguised as tool or business practice problems.
There are a unlimited number of attributes that can be used to define a culture. I think, however, that we should be cautious about applying the same set of attributes to all cultures. Each culture has its own particularities and the best approach is to derive the attributes from the particular culture you are studying— a bottom up or inductive approach as opposed to using a one size fits all.
To illustrate this inductive approach, let’s talk about a cultural attribute that is used frequently to describe business organizations. Patti Vargas suggested that thickness is a cultural attribute that should be used to study and understand organizational problems. Thickness/thinness is about whether or not a majority of employees support and believe in the company’s mission and philosophy. Let’s say for the purpose of this post that the culture in question is thin. There is no question that thinness is a valid attribute to consider; however, the more important question is why does this thinness exist, and is it a symptom of a broader belief system at work? For example, if I knew that a company’s thinness was the result of an unfair compensation practice that alienated many of the employees, I might conclude that there was a significant distrust of the organization. In this case, the more meaningful element to consider is distrust of the organization, not thinness. Distrust of the organization would say so much more about the culture than thinness and have so many more implications. However, if the culture were thin because many employees were previously self-employed consultants, who were naturally more autonomous, then thinness would have very different implications. Again, this just demonstrates the importance of the why rather than the what. Thinness just describes the problem while distrust of the organization begins to addresses the root cause.
Typically, the reason one defines a set of cultural attributes is to solve a problem. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that someone, perhaps, several people would be required to use these attributes and, more importantly, internalize them in order to solve the problem. Internalize is the operative word here because the problem that needs to be solved is a people problem, not a math problem, and that requires empathy. That being the case, it is important that these attributes regardless of how they are derived be as memorable and as human as possible. This requires something more than a list of attributes because attributes do not create empathy. In fact, the best way to communicate these attributes is not to use attributes at all. Attributes work well for solving a math or algorithmic problems, but not for people problems.
The best way to translate a cultural attribute into something memorable and human is to write a story. A story contains a believable character, often referred to as a persona, and a story line. Stories might seem odd at first but stories are something everyone including programmers and mathematicians can relate to. We were all exposed to stories when we were young and that’s how we learned at a very early age. To create a story about how distrust of organization manifests itself in organization, you would create a character, let’s call him Mike, and tell a story about how Mike deals with his distrust of the organization. You would use the details you gathered while observing people in the organization to flesh out Mike and the story about him. Mike will probably represent bits and pieces of several people you observed in the organization in question. Since characters typically represent more than one attribute or idea, you might want to incorporate other elements about Mike that you’ve learned while observing the people in the organization.
It will take you a while to flesh out Mike but when you are done you should have a narrative that really shows what is like to be an employee of this organization. More importantly, it will help people who are trying to solve Mike’s problem, understand and internalize what it feels like to be Mike.