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Is your culture built to last?

SandcastleI love sandcastles. The process is messy, but the end result is always satisfying. You have to think about design, use the elements available, and work through trial and error until you create the structure you envisioned.

There are often tweaks along the way, particularly if there are unforeseen factors that impact your castle, and modifications at times as you await the dreaded tide. Did you build far enough up the shoreline? Did your “game-changing” castle moat channel the tide around it as you had hoped, or is your hard work being washed away?

In some ways, culture in an organization evolves in a similar way. A combination of elements – some that you’ve added intentionally, like programs, communications, training; some added by others over time, like new ideas and behaviours – create a unique working environment. And you never know whether there’s an industry “wave” lurking around the corner that will disrupt you.

You need to have a culture that can ebb with changes in strategy or direction, but how permanent does it need to be? With some organizations, maintaining their current culture through any type of change is critical: “The culture we have is part of our brand and who we are, and we don’t want this new initiative to change that.” For others, changing the culture is part of the project criteria: “We know that we need to change how we work together if we are going to be able to meet our growth targets.”

What’s the secret for knowing what will work? Is it possible to create something that is ever-lasting? Should that be the goal?

We see many examples of strong cultures in successful companies like Google and Zappos, where just hearing the name of the company brings to mind key elements of their workplace. And yet, even in those cultures, companies make dramatic changes, such as Zappos’s recent elimination of people managers.

When new forms of organization structure or culture hit mainstream media, many leaders are tempted to pursue them, in the hopes of achieving similar business results. I can remember many times from my days in HR when managers would see the latest Fast Company article and ask me “is this something we should do too?” Or insist that this was something we must pursue, immediately.

It’s hard to know when to look to new trends, but my starting point is always this: what’s broken today? It’s about figuring out what needs to change so that the organization can meet its goals, and individuals have the elements they need to enjoy work and achieve success.

Instead of leaping into every trend, take a step back on a regular basis to evaluate your culture’s current state. Examine what’s working well, for employees, leaders and your customers. Analyze whether your culture is a reflection of the brand projected externally, as it is critical that they are aligned, and if not, figure out what needs to change. And finally, assess whether there are structures, programs, activities or behaviours that are preventing the organization from achieving its goals.

Answering these questions will help you figure out which direction to take and whether changes are needed, whether large or small.

The goal shouldn’t be to create a culture so firm that we can look back for years on it with pride, as something we built. Ultimately, culture is about creating an environment that is anchored in strong, lasting elements that support achieving the desired outcomes, and is capable of the flex needed to adjust as the company changes and grows. A culture that keeps pace with the ever-changing business environment and goals is truly one that will stand the test of time.

Alyssa Burkus is the Founder of Shift Wisdom, an organization strategy and change management consulting firm in Toronto, Canada. She works with leaders and teams to build the skills and culture needed for change to become part of the corporate DNA, creating agile, collaborative and engaged teams. Connect with Alyssa on Twitter @alyssaburkus or via

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