Culture is the glue that holds together all of our values, our beliefs, our sense of self, and our confidence and trust in the people around us, whether that’s our family, our place of worship, our community, our nation or our company. Culture is what defines us as individuals, as citizens, as parents, as employers and as employees. Our culture is what sets us apart from other people, other organizations and other nations.
When we believe in our culture, we are motivated to protect it against all odds. In contrast, if we don’t believe in our culture, we will barely lift a finger to help it survive.We learn this early, even before we know the words to define it. Most of us learn the meaning of culture within the structure of our family. When we work together, respect each other and share a healthy core of values, the result is a caring family that will nurture our growth into caring, self-confident adults.This carries over into school. We all have memories of how we fit into the classroom, how easy or hard it was to be accepted, and how well our teachers created environments in which we felt motivated to learn and interact with others.
My school memories are very clear. I was a hyperactive (what we would now probably call ADD) child. By the fifth grade there was a question as to who would run the class: the teacher or I. My parents and school administrators intervened, however, and I was sent to military school to learn discipline in a more structured setting. I did. You either toed the mark or you stood at attention facing the wall for what seemed like hours.That fifth grade year was a turning point in my life. I learned quickly what it meant to function within a strong culture. At first, I just wanted to survive. It was plain to me that students who bought into the school’s culture of results, respect and discipline got ahead. They won the special privileges, they even got their own horses assigned to them and they got promoted in rank to leadership positions. No question about it, I wanted to find a place among the successful.
I learned that a strong culture defines its core values. It might have seemed harsh at the time. There was nothing fuzzy about the demands -- or the rewards. And while I never became a perfect student, I learned that I had a better chance to succeed when I knew clearly what was expected of me and operated within the boundaries of whatever culture I was a part of. I remembered those lessons and applied them diligently when I taught school for several years after graduating from college, and later when I left the teaching profession to pursue a corporate career.
The Visionomics Cube
During my early management positions, I was part of some great successes that often seemed like sheer serendipity. But as I analyzed these organizations, I saw that they had detectable, recurring traits. As I assumed more leadership roles, I began to see patterns that helped to explain a culture’s strengths and weaknesses.
As I began to put words and definitions to these patterns, I embraced a model that resembled a pyramid made up of five basic tiers, starting with core values at the base, then direction, structure, measurement and rewards at the very top.
Pyramid model of cultural traits
The model served me well for many years. But as I gained more experience with it, I began to realize that it did not truly express what I had discovered about the critical elements of culture and their interrelationships. The pyramid’s form implied that the lower blocks needed to be in place before working on the ones above them but that is not always the case.
Then one night, in that lucid time between wakefulness and dreaming, the image of a Rubik’s cube came to mind. It dawned on me that the mechanics of solving a Rubik’s cube was a great visual metaphor for culture, as I viewed it.
The Rubik’s Cube TM, like organizational culture, looks simple. But there are actually 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible ways to configure it. If you start twisting the cube, and don’t know what you’re doing, it merely continues to look very much like it did before you began. Hopeless.
It hit me: This is true of cultures too. You can try all kinds of management programs and processes. You can make a new strategic plan one year and create a new compensation plan the next, and follow up with management by objectives the third year. While you might see marginal improvements, in most cases, you still end up feeling like you are doing little more than twisting the cube, without really solving the puzzle of organizational effectiveness.
In fact, you’ll never solve the Rubik’s Cube TM puzzle unless you understand the 54 moves required. Solving the puzzle, like building a highly effective workplace culture, requires that each "twist" have a specific purpose and that the move relates to the end goal of completing the cube -- or fulfilling your vision for your organization.
So, with a bow to Mr. Rubik, I created a new model to delineate the six critical elements of organizational culture, the Visionomics Cube. At the very center of my cube, surrounded by the six critical elements of culture, is the stakeholder. The six elements continuously act and interact with each other around the stakeholder to create the beliefs and assumptions each stakeholder has about the organizational culture.