The Importance of Cultural Artifacts

The Importance of Cultural Artifacts

This week I spoke to leaders from a group of contractors, suppliers, and manufacturers about both culture and employee engagement. In the afternoon session, I was part of a panel that went for two hours (!), so it allowed for some interesting and more in-depth conversations. At one point, the topic of “core values” came up, and I went on my usual rant about how much of a problem I think core values can be—particularly when they end up as empty promises up on the wall, not reflecting real behaviors inside the organization.

But the truth is, I’m totally fine with core values, as long as they ARE an accurate reflection of internal behaviors. And that’s when I introduced the concept of “cultural artifacts” to the group. All cultures have artifacts—tangible symbols of what the culture is and how it works. One of my favorites comes from Menlo Innovations, one of our case studies in When Millennials Take Over, and believe it or not it’s a Viking helmet. During their daily standup meetings with the whole staff of about 50 people, everyone gives a brief report of what they’re working on that day, and since they use the “pair programming” method, they report out in pairs, so when they are doing that, each pair holds one horn of the Viking helmet—symbolizing that they are two parts of one piece of work. That method is core to their culture, and the helmet is a fun artifact that reinforces that.

Core values can be useful as an artifact too, but the very important lesson here is that artifacts are created AFTER you have gained deep clarity about what the culture is and how it works. The mistake many organizations make with core values, is that they think they need to START with them. They name the core values, and declare that the culture should be about those things. This is backwards. You need to carefully design a culture that drives your success, and THEN you can articulate the short-hand for it. THEN you can create the posters or Viking helmets or whatever else you need—but those are symbols that reflect an already clear culture, not instructions on how to create one.

Photo by NICO BHLR on Unsplash

(Note: I post reflections/insights from my speaking work here, but don't miss my other blog posts on culture and engagement over at the Human Workplaces blog)

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