Every organization has a culture by default. Few organizations have a culture by design.

Even when an organization has intentionally integrated its culture as part of its strategy, business growth naturally forces culture disintegration.  The more a growing organization wants to keep its culture the same, the more it must change what it does.

Culture can be a very complex topic, with consultants drawing wall-sized models to explain cultural dynamics. Warren Buffet said, “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.”

The best leaders understand complex concepts like culture and boil them down into simple terms. For example, creating culture can be expressed with a simple, two-word formula:


It’s that simple. Organizations are comprised of human beings, and humans are predictable and virtually always do what they are reinforced to do. So, if you reinforce behavior A, that is what you will get.

It is not uncommon for leaders to express frustration with the behaviors of their teams, when the same behavior is exactly what they are reinforcing. For example, they might be frustrated by selfish, non-collaborative behavior while that is what their compensation system is rewarding.

So, as you create your winning culture, the only question is, “Which behaviors do I want to see more of to help meet our business objectives?”

It’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater as you initiate a culture change. Rarely is a culture completely misaligned with business objectives, so be sure to honor the past by preserving what is working and shift to the future by reinforcing selected behavior changes.

Start by designing (or redesigning) your organizational systems to reinforce behaviors that support your business strategy. Cultures are created and reinforced by:

  1. Values
  2. Rules and policies
  3. Goals and measures
  4. Rewards and recognition
  5. Staffing and selection
  6. Training and development
  7. Ceremonies and events
  8. Leadership practices and decisions
  9. Communications
  10. Physical environment
  11. Organizational structure

These cultural systems must be aligned vertically and horizontally with:

  • your business strategy (vertical alignment) and
  • other culture systems so they reinforce each other and do not contradict (horizontal alignment).

For example, a company that values innovation wants to vertically align their employee selection system by designing it to hire innovative thinkers and then reinforce innovative behavior once they arrive with appropriate reward systems.

This same organization must create horizontal alignment by ensuring all the above systems are reinforcing innovative behaviors and not inadvertently squelching it with bureaucratic decision making or communication systems.

So, throw out the complex models of culture change, and keep it simple: Culture = Behavior.