culture design starts with you
Context and introduction of what my aims, research
questions and conceptual frameworks are
Evaluating the work experience
Disengagement is the action or process of withdrawing from involvement in an activity, situation, or group
(Oxford dictionary, no date)
Dear reader, you are one of three things: coming from work, at work or going to work soon. Did you know that people spend roughly 25 years of their lives at work, that is 50,000 hours (Handy, 1989) doing something every day in exchange for a salary? It would be ideal to imagine that all this time is spent with a relative degree of enjoyment and engagement. But that is not the case.

The global work force is full of disengaged workers (63% according to the Gallup Organisation, 2016) which means our collective work experience is high in quantity (hours) but low in quality (engagement) at an individual level. It matters because as disengaged workers we "have 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, 60% more errors and defects" (Gallup and Swift, 2016) and are hindering gains in economic productivity. Most importantly we are impacting 25 years of our lives negatively in terms of quality of life. Something is not working.

Disengagement can be fatal for startups and innovative teams as well since greater challenges are faced within these environments than on established companies. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook warns that no matter what you do, as an entrepreneur "you will make mistakes". Whether it is it is "hiring, setting up the company or working on the product", mistakes will be made. In the startup world there are add-on activities to the ones in conventional companies like preparing for a new round of funding and facing rapid growth overnight.

Presented with this steep learning curve, an entrepreneurial team needs to be consistently present and involved in the task at hand. Disengagement has no place within a startup. Entrepreneurial activity and innovation needs individuals who bring their full selves to what they do. It will not be enough to keep up with market opportunities and latest technical skills, to succeed, start ups will beed to be agile in learning how to design culture that starts with the individual.
«Companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share.»
The Gallup Organisation
(Mann and Harter, 2016)
In eight years working in the digital creative industry I've listened to the work-related complaints of friends, family and even strangers while in Lima, Dubai, Barcelona and London. All of these people expressed different levels of unhappiness at work, had an emotional reaction and connected the source of their discomfort to either management, themselves or internal politics.

Personal issues with culture however are not exclusive to my close surroundings. A person named Julie Horvath in the U.S. quit her job at GitHub recently and used Twitter to complain about the company's alpha-male culture - which in turn led to the resignation of GitHub's CEO (Atchinson, 2014). Ray Rakesh, a PayPal manager, also recently used twitter to explicitly attack executives of his own company. Later his colleagues tweeted back that he was mentally unwell and that they wished he would get help (Atchinson, 2014). Bad cultures breed bitterness in employees who then confide their frustrations face to face or take more public platforms like Twitter to share openly with the world.

Having recognised employee's negative sentiments at work, companies like People Insight and Culture Amp offer services to measure and manage employee engagement. Moreover, apps like Josle, AskNicely, Youlab, Wellevue, Meetoo, Tessello, 15five (to name a few) offer help with organisational solutions like:

  • cultural and employee alignment
  • performance, feedback and goal management
  • meeting planning
  • rewards program
  • social recognition
  • surveys

Even The Guardian, kicked off an employee engagement programme in 2010 to build a sustainable employee engagement strategy in other organisations. They offered "workshops, lectures and debates with senior managers in the company and outside experts". The demand for tools and support is there and so is the supply of strategic solutions, the question is whether or not the solutions are effective in driving employee engagement. By the bleak stats (only 13% of employees are engaged worldwide) the Gallup Organisation gives, the solutions are far from effective.

In terms of proposing more complex solutions for a complex problem, the biggest tech company in the world, Google, invested in researching and publishing the top five traits of their most successful teams. The first quality was "psychological safety", which means "shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking." The second quality was connected to being able to depend on other members of the team (Rozovsky, 2015). Google's report highlights the importance of interpersonal relationships for successful engaged teams at work than on the work done itself - evidencing we must look at the human relationships before we look at the work being done by them.

«Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they're more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they're rated as effective twice as often by executives.»
Google People Operations
An artistically talented colleague of mine drew this during a briefing session at our advertising agency. How engaged was he with the situation? and why?
Listening to my peers troubles at work is interesting because most of these professionals feel helpless in an industry characterised for creative problem solving. In their minds, there is little or nothing to be done to change a situation aside from maybe moving jobs or talking to peers. This could be a case of "learned helplessness", the condition of "not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless" (Seligman, 1972). Many of my peers have been through uncomfortable or stressful work situations where nothing could be done, therefore they could be assuming there is nothing to do in this new situation either.

As a consequence of "learned helplessness", fear or apathy few of my peers feel they can talk to their bosses about a problem directly. In this context, if business leaders "must raise the bar on employee engagement" (Gallup and Swift, 2016) they should consider what type of feedback their teams are holding back because they think it wouldn't change a thing.

To address the problem, it would be interesting to think about why are employees holding back their feedback and what other behaviours are hindering to the improvement of the company's interpersonal relationships. Asking organisations to hold "leaders accountable for building a strong and enduring culture, listening to feedback, and engaging their teams" (Brown et al, 2015) makes the leader fully responsible for culture. Allowing my frustrated peers to carry on complaining about work.
Research Questions
research question n.1
Should leaders design culture?
Is there a possibility that business leaders don't know how to design culture? What if instead, employees do? How did the industry arrive to the conclusion that leaders are tasked to design culture for organisations? The following is my hypothesis of how this belief cycle looks like.
Belief cycle where the main thought is "The leader makes a culture"
Focusing the research and tactics on top-down culture design removes the responsibility from employees to design culture themselves. Moreover, it leaves the industry with little basis on which to create a bottom-up culture design approach. The work done on advising leaders could extend its use if shared with everyone in the workplace, so more people can help address and develop better working cultures together. If this was done, the following is a visualization of what the belief cycle would be instead:
Belief cycle where the main thought is "The team makes a culture"
The concern is that leaders are likely to be making culture-related decisions based on their best guess and at times this guess might not be in the best interest of the team (Murninghan, 2012). Harvard lecturer Barbara Kellerman and Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer have written several books about how leaders are just regular human beings and that we should be wary of trusting them more than ourselves. Kellerman (2004) points out that "if most leaders were worthy people, it would be easy to understand why we accentuate the positive. But the reality is, of course, that flawed leaders are everywhere." What if leaders are not qualified to make culture-related decisions?

Challenging the role of leaders in designing culture might have implications on all fronts. If employees are to take culture in their own hands, what qualities should they develop? What qualities should leaders develop in turn? Could leaders build loyalty from their teams by trusting them to design their own culture? Could this loyalty keep the team together at times of crisis? What organisational changes will need to take place?

Research question n.2
Can anyone design culture?
Why should business leaders be the only ones concerned with creating better work cultures? Shouldn't we all be responsible for our own engagement and finding a way to design our own? I wonder if professionals (especially those in the digital and creative industry) could apply problem solving frameworks like Design Thinking to design their own culture.

Design Thinking culture

Design Thinking is a tried and tested problem solving framework used by professionals both within and outside the creative industry. Tim Brown, CEO and president of the innovation and design firm IDEO, defines Design Thinking as "a discipline that uses the designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity" (Ideo, 2009)

The idea is that through understanding the user's needs, applying divergent thinking, prototyping and iterating, the most appropriate solution is found for the challenge at hand. Applying Design Thinking to culture would mean first understanding what the challenge at hand is (designing culture) and what the users (the employees) really need to not only be engaged but also to thrive at work.
«A design marks out a vision for what can be; the act of designing is to move with intent to close the gap between existing conditions and that vision (Victor, 2014)»
Todd Johnston, designer of social processes technologies and experiences for sense-making
Head of Design for the Global Innovation Summit in Silicon
Mapping Culture

Dave Gray founder of XPLANE (company that created the world-known Business Canvas) created the Culture Map, a tool to help teams map out their existing vs. their idea culture. Gray said in an interview that most of the things employees complain about is in their hands to change and that culture "happens whether we design it or not" (Guppta, 2015). Having tested the map myself with a group of 10 people, what is lacking from this solution is the channel between existing and ideal. Nonetheless, it is a great reflection and evaluation tool.
Another similar tool was created by Alex Ivanov, ex Hyper Island student. He created the Team Canvas, a multipurpose team tool that can help create team alignment, conflict management and build productive cultures "fast". I had the chance to interview him and turned our chat into a podcast (see below). During our conversation, he pointed out that "60% of startups fail due to founders misalignments" and that the Team Canvas could help bring out topics to be discussed and aligned on "speeding up many processes" (Ivanov, 2016). Tools like the Culture Map or the Team Canvas remain great well thought-out reflection tools for teams, but they remain vague in terms of what needs to get done in particular to reach the ideal scenario being discussed.
Beyond maps and reflection tools, Design Thinking bridges the gap between what is right now and what could be. It requires skills, effort and determination but offers a framework with which to hack culture in the workplace. Most importantly it demands action and iteration.
I am researching culture not only as my Master's Industry Research Project for Hyper Island but for what I hope to be my future career. Having set up Northern Quarter Agency, a Culture Design agency, I hope to create material that will serve myself and my team in the future.

Since the inspiration to look into culture started years ago by observing unhappy employees at creative agencies, I hope to give back to them directly. I hope to offer talented professionals in forward thinking/creative organisations and teams, ideas on what to do when frustrated with their work culture.

I hope the findings and recommendations seem useful and coherent to contemporary leaders in the creative industry who want to empower their team and help them design their own work culture. I hope people looking after the culture of large organisations look at my work and feel inspired to make change that starts from the individuals, not management.

In terms of what I'd like to take away from this project, I hope to get a better understanding of what cultural and leadership challenges are present in the digital creative & tech industry. I know things are not working but I would like to know why and how to fix it.

It would be interesting to prove that leadership skills can help anyone practice and develop as culture designers in today's workplace. I would like the elitist treatment of leaders to stop and for organisations to make leadership training available to everyone.

Finally, it is important for me to apply the knowledge I got at Hyper Island in this project. I want to do an in-depth research of culture and leadership both from an academic and practical perspective and finally to propose an actionable plan for anyone to do Culture Design.

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