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The "Organizational Culture" Lesson is part of the full, Enterprise Design Systems Management course featured in this preview video. Here's what you'd learn in this lesson:

Ben discusses the layers of organizational culture, basic underlying assumptions, espoused beliefs, and artifacts.


Transcript from the "Organizational Culture" Lesson

>> So we have gone through a lot and I have one more kind of major section to share with you, and that's on design system culture. So I'll actually start this off with another kinda quick story, if that's all right. In 2021, my company spent about a year or so working with a large financial services company.

They had hired us to come in and help them, one, build a design system but in parallel with that we were building sort of an MVP for a new product idea. They're an older organization. They've been around a while. One of those companies that is kind of trying to make the transition fully into kind of digital.

They have a lot of data they've collected over the years and didn't quite know what to do with it. And so we're working with some folks to try and turn some of that data, that valuable stuff into interesting products for their clients. They're really competitive company. They had a ton of new ideas and stuff and they were just really struggling to move quickly on executing those new ideas.

Again, we came in to help them build one of those new products and then also build a design system. So hopefully, they could kinda take that system work and then carry out executing on some of these new ideas a little bit faster in the future. So we jumped in alongside their teams and we really got to work.

And I look at the stuff we created, and I'm actually really happy with it. But [LAUGH] I wish I could sit here and tell you how amazing this engagement was, but I'll be very honest, it was a real struggle. And it was so difficult that at the end of that year, we made the difficult decision to just walk away.

And we've never actually done that. In 14 years, never had we done that. And it was a really difficult choice to make but the reason that we gave for walking away was this, cultural incompatibility. And I sat with this at the end of the year over the kind of break into the new year and the holidays and all that, and it just didn't sit well with me.

So I spent basically all of last year trying to understand what this actually meant. Why the heck did this happen to us? What did we miss? What do I not know about this concept? And I basically was just talking to anybody who would give me any time to talk about culture, who actually knew what they were talking about.

And that research kinda led me down a lot of different rabbit holes. But there's a couple of concepts in sort of organizational culture that that are not mine that are like decades old work, that have been around for a while that I think are actually really important and kind of inform the way that we should be thinking about this stuff in the systems work we're doing.

Now, talking about culture in and of itself can be really challenging. So it's a very nebulous thing, so I thought it might be good. I just was looking for a really good definition of organizational culture, and the one that I found, there's many out there, but the one that I found that really stuck with me was by a gentleman named Edgar Schein, who's a social scientist and a university professor here in the US.

He offers a really simple model that we can use just to kinda have some language to talk about organizational culture, and he said that culture is made up of three layers. The first is our basic underlying assumptions. The second is our espoused beliefs, and the third is the artifacts of the culture.

So, we can think a little bit more about these in detail. When I say artifacts, what he meant when he said artifacts is that these are the things you see, the really visible aspects of your culture, the perks, the benefits, the ping pong table, maybe the free lunch, those kinds of things, the stuff that's really obvious on the surface of the culture.

The espoused beliefs are the things that people say about your organization? So the company mission, the vision, the values, maybe the slogan that's painted in huge letters on the wall, or the email signatures, or whatever it is, right? The conversations even that are happening in Slack or Teams where people are talking about the company.

And then the basic underlying assumptions are what people actually believe about the organization. And these, of course, are much harder to get at. Usually in fact, these are kind of revealed when things get hard. So you don't know what someone really believes until they're forced to make a really difficult decision.

They're forced to prioritize one thing over another. Now as an employee, you experience these things from the top down. So on your first day at a new company, you come in, you get your laptop or whatever, you observe what's happening around you. Maybe you get that free lunch or whatever.

And eventually, you start to have some conversations with folks once you get to know them, and you hear what they say. And then at some point, your leaders or peers are gonna be faced with a difficult situation, and you will learn what they truly believe based on the decisions that they make in that tough time.

And when these things don't align, right, we call it a weak culture. So that means the things that you see or the things that you say don't align with the things that people actually believe. Nobody wants to work in that environment. That's a weak culture or a toxic culture.

Often times weak cultures have an excessive number of policies and procedures, right? They're kind of policing the behavior of individuals, and they make decisions based on the lowest common denominator of behavior. Now when these three layers all align, we call that a strong culture, and that means the organization doesn't need to be as explicit in stating their behaviors they expect because the people all want the same things.

We have common underlying assumptions. We align at the base level. We share those values. That alignment helps tremendously in building an organization where people trust each other and feel like they actually belong. Now I know I haven't said a single word about design systems yet. I promise you I'm getting there.

But I thought it would be really important for us to take a few minutes just to have some common language around culture that we can use in the conversation about how this applies to our work on systems.

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