Welcome to the final article in our series, “Why your company culture must change.” In this series, we’re discussing why your business culture isn’t a fixed set of values you scribbled with your mission statement on a napkin one night. Instead, it is a dynamic set of hierarchical values that can and should change in response to the business’ growth and development.

I’ve heard leaders complaining that their culture is changing. I’ve read countless articles on the topic. Their intentions are good, but I believe their understanding of culture is a bit naive.

I don’t believe that a real company culture can stand the test of time if it is fixed and unchanging. 

Thanks to Peter Drucker’s masterful contribution to modern management, culture is panned as a form of business cure-all. A lack of culture is the great destroyer of all things, and the presence of a strong culture is almost all you need to succeed. While I agree with this, I can only do so if we come to a new understanding and definition of culture.

Culture is not your written mission, vision, and values. It is the self-reinforcing norms that are celebrated and functionally beneficial (typically over the medium to long term) to your company.

This understanding of culture is particularly necessary for business owners who are just starting out. In great part due to Collins’ books Built to Last and Good to Great or Lencioni’s The Advantage or Wickman’s Traction, many new businesses are trying to solve problems experienced by big businesses that are in a very different stage of the corporate lifecycle. Trying to solve a problem you are not yet experiencing leads to fruitless endeavors defining fancy and clever missions, visions, and values that are aspirational at best and, in many cases, counterproductive and confusing.

Let me put it simply; the values of a startup should be almost entirely different than the values of a large enterprise. If we try to define 3-7 traits that to last for the entire existence of the company, they will almost certainly be so universal and nonspecific that they will do absolutely nothing to inform the thoughts, decisions, and behaviors of the individuals in the company. 

To survive, successful company’s unconsciously (or consciously) abandon these aspirational values and develop an unwritten and unspoken code of behavior that is actually necessary for the company to perform, to grow, and even just to survive. This works for a while, at least on the surface.

However, under the surface, the real damage is inflicted on the team. The written values are almost entirely forgotten; you’ve unintentionally but thoroughly discredited your written culture, leaving everyone to do what you do, not what you say. When it comes time for the business to grow up and start to implement systems and processes to achieve the next level of growth, the unspoken culture fights back with a fury.

Internally, it feels more like an existential fight for survival than it does and evolutionary step forward. This internal and often unspoken conflict is what makes Whitewater so painful for leaders and employees. There is almost no way to know what the culture is. It’s not what we wrote down. What we were doing seems not to be working anymore. The new people bring the right skills, but they don’t feel like “us.” The “us” who got us here aren’t getting the job done. We need to find true north again, but we don’t know where to look.

How do we solve this problem?

The best way to solve this problem is to come to terms with the reality that values change over time and to be ok with what our real values currently are, no matter how cool or aspirational they are. For example, most small businesses need to get rid of their current values and write a new REAL list, and value #1 should be “Sales.” This level of honesty would be painful for a moment, but it’s true. These businesses need everyone, regardless of their position, to be thinking of how to generate and support new sales.

Unfortunately, no one does this, and we’re creating a ton of confusion because of it. If you want to create clarity in your business, I guarantee you communicating what is really valuable to you now will get the job done. Get rid of jargon like innovation, creativity, and integrity if they never REALLY mattered in the first place. Replace them with values like Sales, Enthusiasm, Agility, Determination, and Ship It, and you’ll be shocked at the difference it makes.

Then, as the company grows and matures, your honesty about the values will give you the moral authority to intentionally change those values to ensure the company thrives at this new stage in its lifecycle, as we discussed in Part 2 of this series.

I would love to hear from you. Do you agree or disagree? What are your values, and do they line up with what you value? Do your values need to change? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.