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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Much literature has been written on branding.

But what is a brand? Can you define it in just 6 words?

No, it is not Nike’s “swoop.” It is not McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle. It is not Accenture’s Tiger Woods ads. It is not the design of my website or my “Unconventional Thinking” tag line.

Erik Hansen, Tom Peters’ brand manager (and a good friend of mine), said it quite eloquently. A brand is… “what your customers say it is.”

What is great about this definition is that it gives you direct access to changing your brand. To change your brand you must change your customers’ perceptions and experiences. No logo or advertising campaign has ever done this.

Much less has been written about culture. Can you define it in just 4 words?

This one is a bit trickier. If you Google “definition of culture” you will find a wide range of thoughts on the topic. Webster’s definition of organizational culture is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices.” Not bad. But it does not give you direct access to changing your organization’s culture.

Try on this definition.

Culture is… “what your employees say.”

It not what they (or you) say it is, but rather what they say.

It is defined by the conversations. Verbal, written, and unwritten conversations. These might be your mission, vision, rules, and policies. But quite often, your culture is more powerfully defined by the informal conversations that take place.

Conversations between employees. Conversations between bosses and subordinates. Conversations between employees and customers. Conversations between employees and their family and friends. And most importantly, the conversations that take place in the heads of your employees.

Given this, how do you change a culture?

You change the language.

There is a reason I have been dedicating so much blog space to the power of language. Yes, I am fascinated by language. But more importantly, the words we use define our culture. The words we use impact risk taking, perceptions, and motivations.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these definitions.

In future blog entries, I will discuss specific ways in which you can change your organization’s culture by changing its language.

  1. “Culture is… “what your employees say.”..

    I began to ponder…

    Is it always JUST what people say? No. There are actions (social/behavioural), mores and so on. We can detect cultural difference that goes beyond our simply not understanding a language. We may see subservience, aggression, shyness as non verbal or non text cues.

    However, you are talking about a delimited cultural setting vis a workplace and in this context I can see the strength of your assertion. To a point.

    This statement, “It not what they (or you) say it is, but rather what they say. ” is not all that clear to me in meaning.

    Aside from this you offer a fairly mixed bag of media by which a culture can be identified. Who composed those cultural artifacts? Mission statements are not usually written by shop or factory floor staff so they have no input into that particular artifact. So, is this an indicator already that there may be various views of culture held – and some potentially contradictory?

    Strategies for changing culture may firstly assume a desire for change being broadly shared. We’ve already seen the artifacts may not be cohesive so how do we set about changing an array of views and some that may oppose change?

    I would also question changing language rather than changing conceptions. I know how to change conceptions.

  2. Hi Susan,

    Thanks for your comments.

    First, let me say that my definition of culture is not the truth. In fact, nothing I write about is the truth. They are only intended to be points of view/lenses that help individuals and organization increase their ability to change in a positive way.

    Having said that, from my experience, culture IS defined by the conversations people have. Actions are almost solely a result of thoughts. The only actions that aren’t are those driven by the reptilian brain. All other actions are a result of an internal conversation, whether or not they are aware of it.

    Social norms (and culture) are defined by agreement. Agreement is nothing more than conversation. Again, these conversations are sometimes hidden are undistinguished.

    Yes, the media can influence this. But again, it is conversation that results in agreements.

    Re:“It not what they (or you) say it is, but rather what they say.” An executive can not say they have a creative culture. It does not happen by dictate. It happens by agreement. Hence, you can only have a creative culture if the conversations and the resulting actions are indicative of a creative culture.

    You can’t do an employee survey to discover your culture. Most of the conversations are, as already mentioned, hidden and subconscious.

    Interestingly, some cultures can be defined by a single word. I worked in Singapore for a while. There, the word “kiasu” is used quite frequently. It literally means “fear of losing.” This widely held belief causes people to horde and accumulate as they don’t want to lose out on something. And it also causes them to not want to “lose face,” making true creativity more difficult.

    Culture is reinforced by the language we use. “Don’t do that.” “We never do that.” “We always do that.” “Do that and you’ll get fired.” These conversations are built over time and only have meaning if there is agreement that they are true.

    Again, these can be conversations we have in our head. Although these may be most difficult to detect, they can also have the most powerful influence on an organization.

    Language is extremely important in defining a culture. I will write more on this topic.

    Thank you again Susan for your thoughtful comments!

    Steve

  3. Hi Steve,

    Don’t think I disagree with your assertion that language and communication are at the core of what we do and are the core expressions and conveyors of culture. Artists may disagree and a convent that doesn’t allow it’s members to speak might disagree although on the later example you may say that not speaking is actually a cultural expression.

    In any work of research I’ve done, aside from drawings (but even those are explored verbally) language is the key to unlocking insights. Absolutely. And the work I may do in drawing out themes or even scanning text for vital key words illustrates. Certainly I could report on the ‘culture of knitters’ and in the description show a very different culture from that of weight losers or accountants.

    In the ethnographic work I’ve done some very insightful narratives have come from individuals who have been very influenced by two cultures. In fact in some societies the cultural straddle leaves certain people out in the cold because they don’t neatly position in one identifiable group.

    Do you think a multi-cultural world affects the point you raise?

    The only point other I would make again is that when you observe a cultural setting and take notes – let’s say I’m sitting observing a warehouse delivery and exit area – you do see behaviours that are telling. Now those behaviours may well have been developed by language but sometimes cultural behaviours are learned from modeling only. A classic example is a young apprentice on a work site who observes that the boss always sits in a particular spot at smoko and so learns a) to never take that spot, b) to keep an eye on that spot, and c) to sit themselves in relation to that spot.

    I have encountered numerous examples like that so although yes I believe language is central to acculturation matters, there are other examples. I simply think it worth noting they exist.

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