Cultivate Your Culture

by Billy Pittard on February 6, 2011

The Cultural Dictionary defines culture as “The sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.”

We tend to think of culture as being something that exists at the level of ethnicities or nations, but very distinct cultures are recognizable at smaller scales such as companies, departments within companies, and even at smaller levels. When I think about the creative agencies and boutiques I’ve visited through the years, I recall strong impressions of what I would call their cultures. Some were good and some were not.

Take another look at that definition and consider how culture might affect a creative team’s performance. Attitudes, customs, and beliefs surely affect how a creative team performs – or any team for that matter. When you look at the second part of the definition describing how culture is handed from one generation to the next, it’s easy to see that culture is a long-term factor in an organization’s performance.

And yet, how many organizations give any reasonable amount of consideration to their culture? It’s often treated like some unimportant, un-measurable ephemeron.

Breaking that definition down, attitudes and beliefs are something I already covered in my earlier post about values. Customs, rituals, language, material objects, institutions, and art, however, deserve some special attention here.

Customs and rituals

Customs and rituals have a strong influence over creative collaboration. In most cultures, these things develop organically with no deliberate direction behind them, but with a little bit of care, they can be brought into alignment with a group’s core values and become mechanisms to nurture those values. For example, celebrating the success of a project can become a powerful and positive part of a group’s culture. Such a celebration reminds the group of its definition of success, and reinforces the effort involved in achieving it.

Language

Have you ever noticed how terms spread virally through groups? The language (i.e. words, terms, and manner of speaking) that a group embraces can have a strong influence among a group of collaborators. A group’s language can range anywhere from abusive to positive, and from arcane jargon to intellectually stimulating communication.

During the dot com boom days, I was often mystified by the strange language I heard in meetings. Here’s a link to a “Web Economy Bullshit Generator” from that era and it’s still funny – and it’s still awfully close to how some people actually talk.

“People use jargon because they want to sound smart and credible when in fact they sound profoundly dim-witted and typically can’t be understood, which defeats the purpose of speaking in the first place.”

–Karen Friedman, author of “Shut Up and Say Something,”

Material Objects

The material objects around a workplace send strong signals about the culture. Is the furniture absolute junk, or maybe it’s so precious and pristine that it’s uninviting to actually use. Either way, it says something about the culture. A good collaborative cultural environment should have sturdy, comfortable, well-designed furnishings that invite their use. That would stimulate activity – not inhibit it. Tools, artifacts from past projects, books and magazines, and any other kind of material objects all contribute in some way to the culture of the place.

Institutions

Institutions within groups can be formal or informal, but they are definitely a part of the culture. Pecking orders and cliques are an example of informal institutions. A humorous example of a formal institution would be the Party Committee on the TV show The Office. If you are a fan of the show, you may remember how Angela ran the Party Committee for years, and how her control over office parties influenced the culture of the group.

Art

It is essentially impossible for creative people to not be influenced by the art in their environment. Art that surrounds the group can stimulate new directions, or it can stifle fresh thinking. And I’m talking about all forms of art, including visual, auditory, kinesthetic, interactive, and even external experiences like museums, and concerts. If my assertion is correct, then it is wise to deliberately choose and change those items to stimulate creative thinking.

Cultivate Your Culture

A deliberately cultivated culture will eventually emerge as the participants come to understand the importance of your chosen values and practices, but you have to start somewhere. The points raised in this post will definitely get you going in the right direction

Please share your comments on my blog, and let me know about work cultures you’ve experienced.

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Cultivate Your Culture | Best Life
June 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm

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Michael Schultz February 8, 2011 at 8:02 am

It’s too true. In fact I’ve noticed as a web AND graphic designer (being able to hang out in both groups of people) that both types of individual designers have their own distinct culture, their own way of life that defines who they are. Some people go as far as to focus on, and express that way of living just as much as they focus on their work.

Thanks for the excellent post Billy!

Viriginia Donnell February 8, 2011 at 11:41 am

This happens in college classrooms all the time especially if it is a smaller group of students. If students start off in a combative argumentative and closed-minded attitude toward the content, this will continue throughout the term. Measures can be taken to alter or plant more positive culture seeds however this can be cancelled out by the perceived class leaders. Getting the leaders to take on a more positive attitude is the key to changing the culture.

Michael February 11, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Excellent series of articles! Your past articles regarding creative briefs and assigning a leader really helped a volunteer group I work with.

On another note, I really like Jason Fried’s views of the workplace in his book “Rework”. I’m all for technology allowing us to work anywhere, uninterrupted. You’ve probably seen this: http://www.ted.com/talks/jason_fried_why_work_doesn_t_happen_at_work.html

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