Why You Need to Design Your Design Culture

By Lauren Currie, Managing Director of NOBL.

Illustration: Justin Cheong.
Why You Need to Design Your Design Culture
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When you’re developing a new product, or designing a new brand, you’re not trying to copy everything else on the market. Good design creates a unique offering that meets the needs of a specific customer. In fact, the final output might even be off-putting to the majority of the market, but serves those who need it most!

So why, then, do we create company cultures that look the same? One startup installs a slide, and suddenly we’re all working in a playground; another company starts being radically candid and we’re pouring our hearts out in status meetings. At NOBL, we call this “management by book club” — the boss reads the latest bestseller on leadership, and suddenly, that’s how the team is expected to work — at least until the next bestseller comes out.

The unapologetic culture

In working with Fortune 500 companies and rapidly scaling startups, I’ve seen hundreds of permutations of culture and found that, just like brands or products, every culture should be unique. The strategies that it chooses to respond to changing market conditions should set it apart from its competitors. Most importantly, it should be unapologetic, in that the company should be clear about the good and bad upfront, so employees know what they’re signing up for.

Consider companies that are celebrated for their distinct cultures. Apple’s fanatical attention to design was possible because the designer mindset was imbued in every role within the organization—as Steve Jobs said, “We hire people who want to make the best things in the world.” Netflix’s famous culture deck emphasized autonomy, believing that talented employees would act in the company’s best interest. As a result, they eliminated time-consuming processes like vacation tracking and budget approvals. More recently, Ray Dalio’s “Principles” has been making the rounds. At hedge fund Bridgewater, he believes the company’s commitment to radical transparency is what allows for the best ideas to surface — even if feelings get hurt.

To many people, these cultures seem extreme, even borderline cultish, and they steer clear. In other words, it’s the perfect way to filter out people who are a bad fit, while attracting new employees who do find it appealing. And once a part of the organization, the strong culture keeps the team aligned and moving towards their goals. In fact, a recent study indicated that setting clear expectations about the culture is the greatest factor impacting employee engagement.

Let’s be clear — we’re not suggesting an unapologetic culture doesn’t have to apologize when it actually makes a mistake, or that it should never change. If market conditions change or an error is made, cultures must adapt. But creating an intentional, deliberate design culture will help you attract and retain employees and empower them to achieve your company’s mission.

Establishing a cultural contract

Ideally, every organization would be able to clearly define its “cultural contract” — the promises that it and employees make to each other. But in reality, teams rarely set out to design a culture. Instead, people tend to bring practices they’ve learned at other organizations, without thinking about whether they support their new team’s strategy or fit with existing practices.

If you want to create a more distinctive, aligned culture, the first step is discovery. What are the existing cultural expectations on your team? What trade-offs is the team willing to make? Use these questions as thought-starters:

  • What do we, the organization, owe to you, the employee?
  • What do you owe to us?
  • What do teammates owe to each other?
  • What behaviors or outcomes do we value or reward the most?
  • What behaviors or outcomes are we willing to compromise on?

If you have good relationships with your employees, you may be able to capture this information in 1:1s, but if trust is low among the team, it may be more effective to conduct an anonymous survey or bring in an objective third party.

The next step is to review the data for patterns. Is the team aligned around expectations? Are there aspects they’d like to see change? Once you’ve had a chance to synthesize the results, bring the team together to share and discuss. This step is often overlooked, as leaders have a tendency to want to jump to solutions. But acknowledging the team’s opinions is crucial to get everyone moving forward together. So often at this event, we see looks of relief on team members faces — they find they’re not the only ones struggling with the culture!

Iteration makes perfect

If everyone is aligned on and generally happy with the behaviors and trade-offs the team makes, congratulations — you have an effective cultural contract. Chances are good, though, that your team will have identified areas that need to improve. Once you’ve identified what needs to change, it’s tempting to seek out a solution that will solve all of the problems — who hasn’t seen a team go through a costly, involved 18-month implementation process, only to see adoption peter out in weeks? Instead, use the same iterative approach you would use to develop a prototype: identify the simplest, cheapest solution to address the problem, and test it with an actual user. Get their feedback and incorporate it into the next version of the prototype until you’ve reached an acceptable result.

One of the most critical (and overlooked) elements of testing a prototype is creating the right environment for testing. It’s impossible to build a failsafe prototype — indeed, prototypes should fail. Instead, make sure the prototype is ‘safe-to-fail’: even in the worst-case scenario, its failure won’t irrevocably harm the business. This might mean trying it in a smaller team first, for instance, or in a low-stakes decision-making scenario. Only once the prototype has been tested and iterated to an acceptable level should it be rolled out to the larger team—again, with rounds of feedback in order to address new issues—and established as part of your cultural contract.

The evolution of a culture

Of course, an unapologetic culture doesn’t appear overnight — it’s the accumulation of many little behavioral changes at scale. You’ll know you’re on track when you start to see some people opting out, while attracting more people who share your approach. But the best sign of an unapologetic culture? The culture stands out so much that others try to imitate it! Just as designing for a niche sets a brand apart, designing an unapologetic organizational culture creates a lasting competitive advantage.

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