The Startup Culture Canvas (Beta)

A template for your culture as an organizational operating system

A purposeful and aligned culture is integral to growing a resilient company. If you read my previous article, you know that culture is everything, but how can you apply the concept of culture in practical terms to create a stronger organization?

To help answer that, I present The Startup Culture Canvas. The canvas is a practical tool based on the culture model for designing and cultivating a purpose-driven organization from the ground up.

The Startup Culture Canvas (PDF)

The Startup Culture Canvas (Doc)

It’s designed to help teams articulate a shared vision for the kind of company and culture they want to cultivate, and identify specific actions and strategies to achieve it. The Startup Culture Canvas is a template for using your culture as a more effective organizational operating system.

If you read the previous article, Culture, What is it Really? then you recognize this model for understanding organizational culture:

To recap, the tree represents an organization as a cultural system. The most visible parts of the culture — stories, explicit values, artifacts, and individual behaviors, happen at the top. They are outcomes that emerge from the deeper parts of the culture — the implicit values, power structures, and organizational systems. A healthy culture, like a healthy tree, has as all of the parts working in alignment and balance, and has to be cultivated with intention if it’s going to thrive and achieve its purpose. Just creating a purpose and core values for a company, or focusing on individual behavioral change, won’t do anything to shape the culture if the authority, leadership, and systems don’t reflect the values and facilitate the desired cultural outcomes. The Startup Culture Canvas can help connect those key pieces of purpose, values, and operations.

Definitions

Here’s a quick overview of what’s on the canvas:

Purpose

The driving mission of your organization. An effective purpose brings people together for a common cause, and is the guiding light for all your work.

Values

The core values for your company. Good core values connect your people, purpose, and business strategies, and should reflect the traits your organization needs to succeed. They should be aspirational, actionable, unique, memorable, relevant, and define the relationships that make up your organization. Having good values is important, and you want values that will endure for some time, but it’s also only a first step. It’s really the aspirations and strategies that will get you moving forward.

Aspirations

These are the “stories” of your culture. They should reflect the culture you want to have, and define the tangible outcomes of your values in practice. While your values should define actions and relationships, your aspirations should define the outcomes as the experience and feelings of your people. These answer: What is the ideal culture? What happens when the values are acted on and embodied in your work? How do people feel? Good aspirations will also get at the question of what needs to be true for people to be successful.

Goals & Strategies

This is, literally, where the action is. What can be done in practical terms to help make the aspirations real? Start with the aspirations here — how do they compare to the current reality? What are some barriers there? What are some positive enablers? Think about ways you can align the current reality with the aspirations, build on your strengths, or, how you might design your new company to grow into the aspirations over time. Brainstorm ideas relative to the aspirations, and then sort them into the relevant Goals & Strategies columns. Line up strategies across the columns that enable or support each other (i.e., governance actions that complement policies, or leadership actions that complement structure or process strategies.) Supplement and fill in strategies across the columns as your ideas are organized and clarified.

Business Proposition

Does your company have an articulated value proposition? How does that align with your values and purpose? This is a good time to think about how your external facing business strategies and your business model align, or not, with your values and aspirations.

Tips on Using The Startup Culture Canvas

Here are some quick tips on how you can make the most of this tool:

Make it collective

To build a shared vision, ownership, and accountability, every team member should be involved in a meaningful way.

Give it time

This isn’t meant to be done in one session, or even one day, though if you want to try that’s certainly ok. Either way, it’s important to make space for reflection, processing, discussion, and refinement. The process here is just as important as the final product.

Culture is emergent, and so is this process. You don’t need to have all the answers up front. As you work through it, you’ll gain insight on the next steps. Similarly, don’t feel pressured to fill up every strategy column or have everything perfectly sorted. The goal is clarity around where you want to be, and how to start getting there. Some strategies might be very specific, others might be very broad. You might uncover things you want to do a deep dive on in a separate process — such as mapping out your structure if you are a new startup, or creating a leadership development framework if you are more established.

Mix it up

You can complete it from top to bottom. But it also works really well if you mix up the order a bit. Completing the Aspirations before the Values can be a good way to build a shared vision and surface those shared core values.

Iterate

As you try things and grow, new ideas will emerge and old ones may become less relevant. Turn your strategy columns into a kanban board — re-create it on the wall where you can use stickies to keep it current and keep everyone informed, or make a shared digital version. Create space for new ideas to be shared and voted on. Remember the tree? You can see that strategies in columns to the left will have more impact on your culture as it grows. Rate the strategies for their potential impact and effort, so you can prioritize what you are working on at any point and can mix up some easy and quick wins with more impactful but longer-term work.

What do you think of the culture canvas?


Hi! I’m the Founder and Chief Culture Scientist at The Praxis Department. We help companies connect with their people and take action to build resilience and purpose-driven cultures that scale.