From Aspiration to Culture: the erosion of values

A startup is a blank sheet: no systems, no process, no legacy. To some, it’s anathema: a lack of reference points, a lack of structure, a lack of support. To others, it’s freedom, a freedom they could never experience within a more established business. Startups can have a culture of agility, an inbuilt flexibility and willingness to learn. It’s easy to see the difference: new and young is agile, old and stale is lethargic.

Aspiration vs Culture

But the picture is far from that simple: the journey is complex, and the correlation between age and agility may be less rigid than we think. Culture is created in the moment, through our behaviours: it’s less about the aspiration, more about the execution.

It’s a journey from aspiration to culture, but where you end up is under your own control.

The reason we see an agile culture more as a function of startups is simply that we make it more explicit through the decoration: in a startup, everything is a conscious choice. The furniture, the website, the team, the documentation, all of it is created anew, all of it is, by definition, current. The aspiration is directly expressed in the execution.

In older, more established businesses, it’s much more make do and mend. Different iterations of systems, process and collateral exist. It’s harder to say what’s old and what’s new, plus there is the natural tendency of organisations to accrete.

Like stalactites dripping from the ceiling, organisations accrete ‘stuff’ over time: they try to cage complexity with systems, processes and practices, with technology and teams, attempting to fence off risk and encourage compliance.

But the experience of culture is the same in both: it’s how we are treated in the moment. The aspiration does not make the value.

A young business may certainly have the trappings of agility, may certainly talk the talk of a great culture, but it’s how we behave that actually creates the experience. Similarly, an older business may have none of the external signs of agility, it may be tired, drab and cracked in it’s decoration, but if you are treated with respect and with feeling, then it may have a great culture.

Don’t get me wrong: many established organisations have frankly dreadful cultures, and many more have simply lethargic ones. It’s not that they are bad places to work, but neither are they excellent: not agile, not fluid, not permissive, not equal, and in the Social Age, ‘good enough’ is not enough any more.

Only the truly agile can hope to thrive: only the agile will survive the waves of change, and they will do so through having a culture and team fit for purpose.

But that agility, that culture is not automatically bestowed on the new startups: it’s consciously built and executed. It takes nurturing the same way that it does in any business.

Aspiration is where we want to be: culture is where we are.

There are predictable factors that erode aspiration into poor culture: pragmatism, lack of time, ‘just good enough’, solving for today. These things erode the soul of a culture. We start with vision, with idealism, with the desire for excellent, but all too soon the ground truth kills it. It’s the lived experience that shapes the culture, it’s the reality on the ground that takes it’s toll.

I’m working with some global organisations to change their culture: they want to fix it. So my message is always the same: fix it in the moment. There is no one lever, because the erosive forces are everywhere. We fix it in stages and build our community of change: co-create and co-own that change.

Aspiration is easy: culture is what we live. And to build the culture we want, we have to live the culture we deserve.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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13 Responses to From Aspiration to Culture: the erosion of values

  1. Michele Madden says:

    One of my favourites .) great piece.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. organicwal says:

    Having worked for several organisations that count their employees in the thousands and history in decades, I have witnessed this aspiration vs. culture battle at ground level quite a few times. The usual route seems to be: Snr management recognise that the organisation needs to change to meet a new environment; they create a vision and some values; they inefficiently communicate it to the staff and expect them to be lived immediately; staff are shell-shocked and unsure what to do with them anyway; Snr management fail to live them; staff ignore them because the Snr management do; Snr management request a survey/report of working culture/customer experience; staff have forgotten what the vision and values were; Snr management don’t understand why nobody lives them; Snr management (occasionally) berate/penalise staff; they create a new set of vision and values; annnnd repeat.

    The only time I’ve seen it work, is when the Snr management include the staff in the creation of the vision/values, demonstrating how they fit with people’s personal values and work closely with teams to slowly embed them. Even in that instance, there was a need to constantly refresh everybody’s understanding and for everybody to ‘relax into risk’. Unfortunately, following a change of some key Snr managers that culture slowly fell apart and returned to a more stagnant state, where agility was once again relegated due to a risk averse attitude. (N.B. the organisation was eventually liquidated after making significant losses as they lost the commitment and flexibility of the workforce – pity, as they could have done so much).

    The organisation I’m currently with are trying to introduce their first set of ‘official’ values and a vision; will be interesting to see how that progresses.

    Enjoyed the post Julian 🙂

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