A Culture Playbook Like No Other

On using stories to uncover your authentic cultural DNA and cultivate a stand-out culture for remote and hybrid teams.

It’s no secret that the talent market is tight, the Great Resignation is in full swing and it doesn’t look like things will get easier anytime soon. So what can you do to stay competitive? And how can you reduce friction, create more flow and help your team do their best work? One key strategy is to clarify who you are and what you stand for as a company — I refer to it as creating a “Culture Playbook.”

In this blog post, I’m going to share how you can use storytelling to uncover your collective cultural ID in a way that engages and energizes your distributed team, helping you attract and retain talent and setting the foundations for a remarkable and authentic company culture that is right for your people and your business.

Company culture and the brave new world of work

The advent of Covid-19 revolutionized the way we work. — Remote, distributed teams, part-time employment, and the gig economy create a complex landscape that remains largely uncharted territory.

Unsurprisingly, many CEOs and HR leaders today are concerned about their company culture. A number of studies warn that “company culture is at risk and can get dangerously diluted”. For example, a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors states that hybrid work is causing a “culture crisis” for organizations. Gallup indicates that remote employees are less likely to see their connection to the mission of the company.

Is it really true, though?

Not entirely. What is true, however, is that we can no longer simply assume that employees will soak up corporate culture by osmosis; today people spend plenty of time at home, not in a traditional office environment where subtle yet powerful cues about company culture used to abound. This brings us to the question:

What happens to a culture when people are no longer working together in the same physical space?

As Katarina Berg, the CHRO of Spotify astutely pointed out in our recent interview on the CultureLab podcast:

“Work is not where we go but what we do.”

Your company culture does not disappear when you work remotely. It’s just different because your interactions happen in a different way. You can still make and reinforce cultural rules and norms when you work from home or anywhere else.

As many pioneering companies have learned a long time ago, it is entirely possible to cultivate a thriving company culture at scale remotely or in a hybrid model. Take GitHub, for example, which was recently ranked one of the top remote-first companies. The company operates completely remotely with no office and has managed to build remote-first work norms that are deeply embedded in their “GitHub way” of working.

What we’re learning from enterprises like GitHub, Shipwell, Buffer, Skillshare, Dropbox, and others is that a deliberate strategy to create clarity, interaction, significant connections, and purpose is essential if you want your business to thrive. And that’s where a Culture Playbook comes in…

What is a Culture Playbook?

One of the prototypes of what I call a Culture Playbook was the famous Netflix culture deck which was referred to as “one of the most important documents to come out of Silicone Valley” by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.

It’s a living, breathing document that guides how business should be done at the organization, what emotional impact the company wants to have on its counterparts, what behaviors and values are expected from employees (and leaders), and most importantly: why this matters for the people, customers and the world at large.

A good playbook describes the key five elements that serve as a compass for everyone in the company. I call them The Big Five:

1. Purpose

A good purpose is more of a narrative than a statement. It my experience it helps when it consists of at least three elements — your Mission, Vision, and Philosophy. Together they describe why your organization exists and what are the fundamental beliefs and mission that guide you in everything you do.

2. Core Values

These are the key beliefs and principles that you uphold at work. In the descriptive part of your core values, it’s useful to guide people around specific behaviors you strive to cultivate in your organization and the ones that you absolutely refuse to tolerate.

3. Core Desired Feelings

It’s important to make it clear how you want people to feel when they interact with your company and why this matters. This part describes the desired emotional impact that you want to have on your employees, clients, and the world at large.

4. A Stunning Colleague Manifesto

This part describes ten behaviors that are non-negotiable — the ones people must uphold if they truly care about building a world-class organization and being… a stunning colleague, no matter what their role is or where in the company hierarchy they are situated.

5. A Leader Manifesto

This section of your Culture Playbook helps people with leadership responsibilities to understand what they need to do and why it matters, outlining the key behaviors, the best practices, and the impact you want them to have on their teams. In other words: it helps leaders become a force multiplier for culture within their respective business units, rather than just another cog in the wheel.

Do we really need to spell it all out?

The short answer is: “Yes.”

The most important reason to be crystal clear about your Big Five is that people don’t work well with ambiguity.

Your team members want to know what is expected of them and they want to be able to do their jobs well.

Accordingly, the most important thing you can do in this new world where work has gone digital is making sure that employees know precisely why your organization exists; how it’s different from every other company out there; what kind of culture you are trying to create; and how they fit into the bigger picture.

A good Culture Playbook should serve as the grease that helps you keep rolling at top speed.

Your playbook should help you attract the right candidates, make better hiring decisions, and improve onboarding so employees can integrate into the team faster. The companies that created one found that it helps define direction towards goals with greater focus, develop resilience and solve problems effectively. And most importantly, it gives them the right foundations to create the only competitive advantage that no one can copy — an authentic, stand-out company culture that scales.

If you’ve tried and failed to create a powerful Culture Playbook, you’re not alone; many companies faced similar challenges. The good news, though, is that there are proven frameworks and processes to help uncover and codify your company culture and create the clarity you need. But to discover your authentic cultural DNA, first, you need to know where to look for it. In over two decades of helping companies with their culture, I discovered that the best place to look is…

The stories that people share.

Stories that made you

“Story was more crucial to our evolution than our much-touted opposable thumbs. All our thumbs do is let us hang on. Story tells us what to hang on to.” — Lisa Cron

I’ve developed the Culture Playbook framework and the Fireside CHAT process with my clients over two decades of consulting around the world. They are designed for growth-stage companies looking to engage their employees in uncovering what’s true and authentic and what helps them thrive and they scale.

The methodology is rooted in the basic yet critical premise:

A company’s collective cultural identity is NOT something to be created or designed (as many culture consultants will try to convince you) — It’s something to be DISCOVERED and EVOLVED. And the best place to start from is with your stories.

Storytelling has been a fundamental part of human experience and culture for millennia. From early Homo Sapiens, stories have not only been our main culture-shaping tool — they were one of the most reliable survival mechanisms we’ve ever had.

The reason is simple: stories allow us to understand our world, ourselves, and each other. They help us adapt by giving a bigger picture perspective of why things happen the way they do — as opposed to mindlessly reacting to events without understanding their meaning or importance.

In many ways, company culture can be defined as:

“The collection of stories people tell each other (and themselves) about what it takes to belong and be successful around here.”

Consequently, if you want to uncover your true cultural ID — you need to start collecting, harvesting, analyzing, and translating these stories into your Big Five.

To discover the key elements of your Culture Playbook, it helps to look at four different types of stories:

  • Your origin story
  • War stories
  • Transformation stories
  • Stories from the future

The origin story

A company’s origin story is much more than a bit of folklore to use as part of a marketing or communications strategy. It’s the genesis of the company’s purpose, values and core desired feelings — the foundation upon which everything else is built.

War stories

War stories recount past events, trials, and tribulations that revealed who you are at the core and what you stand for as a team or company. They can describe successes or failures, illuminating what’s possible when individuals and teams in your company are at their very best — whether they are making progress or facing obstacles. It’s also useful to use cautionary tales — recounting events that you are not proud of because you know it doesn’t reflect who you are.

Transformation stories

These stories record the before-and-after of a person or a group of people, typically the ones you serve (customers, patients, etc.) They describe what the world looked like for them initially and how it was improved by your work and contributions. At their core, transformation stories answer the question: “How do we make things better for those who matter most to us?” They are powerful narratives of action and impact, describing what you did and the impact it had on others.

Stories from the future

Shifting gears slightly, these are stories that describe what you want the world to look like in the future — for those who matter most to you. They include projections of your company’s success and growth (and challenges) as well as its impact on external stakeholders such as communities, clients, patients, etc.

From collecting stories to crafting a Culture Playbook

The process that allows you to decode stories and translate them into a Culture Playbook is called the Fireside CHAT. I use this name because it evokes the image of a group of people sitting around a roaring fire, sharing stories and shaping culture.

CHAT stands for:

C — Collect & Curate

Collect stories and choose the ones that contribute to creating the most complete and rich narrative.

H — Harvest

Storytellers share their stories during a Fireside CHAT event and insight catchers look for insights that relate to your Big Five.

A — Analyze

Insight catchers find patterns and common themes between stories shared during the event, noticing what trends emerge.

T — Translate

Your Culture Squad translates collective insights into your final Big Five Statements.

The Fireside CHAT is a highly participative process. It allows everyone in your company to have their voice heard and included in the final Culture Playbook.

What’s great about it is that it can be run in as little as 2-hours. One of my clients described the Fireside CHAT as a culture equivalent of Jamie Oliver’s 15-minute meals — a simple recipe that allows you to create something authentic and nourishing fast while you enjoy yourself in the process.

In summary

Creating a Culture Playbook using the Fireside CHAT process will pay its dividends tenfold over time. It will not only allow your company to identify what makes you truly and authentically unique and what allows you to be successful now and in the future, but it will also help you attract and retain top talent, giving you the competitive edge over companies who are struggling with culture. And it’s a fun and engaging way to build the foundations for a culture that scales as your company grows.

Additional resources

Updated Culture Playbook Guide.

A masterclass on how to use the Fireside CHAT process in a company of 50 or… of 50,000.

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