Building Team Culture, One Artifact at a Time

Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model has always resonated with me as a way to think about the types of things, both tangible and intangible, that contribute to an organization’s culture. Artifacts, as described in Schein’s model, are the readily apparent signs of a culture — things that can be recognized and understood even by outsiders. They include “any tangible, overt or verbally identifiable elements in an organization. Architecture, furniture, dress code, office jokes, all exemplify organizational artifacts.”

I was introduced to Schein’s model at IDEO, where you are constantly immersed in, and contributing to, cultural artifacts. Diego Rodriguez’s “Company Culture: Why Little Things are Big.” captures IDEO’s approach to artifacts as agents for both creating and sustaining culture. I’ve carried that approach with me as I’ve built teams within other companies.

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to build teams in a couple of different product development environments with some brilliantly talented, humble, and compassionate people. Over the past couple years, I’ve sometimes been asked how I build the kind of strong sense of culture my teams have. My first thought in response is always “well, I don’t build it.” My second thought usually has to do with the artifacts that have been key to building culture within those teams. 
 
With an eye on helping you bring your own team together, here are some of the best ways I’ve found to put artifacts to work.

Keep the GIF game strong

To feel like they’re one team, people have to communicate with one another. That may sound obvious or small, but I’ve found that it has a strong influence on our culture — and that it takes intention every day. In the beginning stages of the last two teams I’ve built, I’ve worked at creating a continuous team conversation.

Sure, the conversation might be full of GIFs and random chatter, but that’s exactly what makes people feel comfortable asking the group any question — including the one that spurs a breakthrough. As my current team has grown, this same approach has helped sub-teams establish their own identities. We even have spin-off chats dedicated to timely subjects of interest (a recent sampling: “Jon Snow Report” and “2016 Election Roundtable”).

Make room for sharing (not feedback)

In the middle of every week we ask everyone across different product teams to share their work in progress in a group post. The instructions are simple: Make it visual and keep the context or explanation minimal. This activity enables everyone to simulate rolling up to the desk of each of their peers and seeing what they’re up to. It’s like a conventional design pin-up, but with a focus on sharing and not feedback. That makes designers feel more at ease showing their unfinished work. Designers are great at seeing connections in the world, so this lightweight sharing also helps build the connective tissue between products and teams.

Laugh at yourselves

To form strong connections with other people, we need to be vulnerable. We need to be willing to share things about ourselves and our lives. Vulnerability can be hard to cultivate at work as we navigate expectations, evaluations, and daily agreements and disagreements among peers.

I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to help people get to know each other is through the shared experience of laughing at ourselves. I took my most recent team to a secret location and then had them learn and film a hip-hop routine together. It sounds like a hokey offsite, but for a group of designers it was just the right antidote to the rigors of our work. Getting closer as people and laughing at ourselves helps us better empathize with the daily hardships and successes of others. Which in turn encourages more peer support and recognition on an ongoing basis.

Get traditional

Unique traditions help people within a group share in their collective identity. When someone joins my current team, the last person to have joined gives that new person a nickname. It sounds silly, but what happens is the whole team participates in researching and learning about their new peer to contribute suggestions and collaborate. It also creates some ceremony when people first join, helping them feel like one of the family.

Make memories like mom and dad

When I was a kid, my parents were always taking pictures of my brothers and me. And now that I have kids of my own, my mother is always reminding me to take pictures and “make memories.” She’s right, of course: Those pictures provide us a way to reconnect with moments from the past. At work, my team makes fun of me for being the “dad” and always taking pictures of them (rarely staged and often as inconspicuous as a dad can be). I of course then post those pictures on Facebook for them and their friends to experience. It not only helps us to remember where we’ve been and what we’ve done together, but also reiterates and celebrates the close relationships and “team-ness” that we have. A dad might even argue that it brings us closer together.

Create space for the team

The environment around you codifies how you interact with others every day. Sometimes the artifact is the space itself. Open or closed seating, dedicated desks or dedicated project spaces — each of these environmental elements can reinforce your shared values (or may be reinforcing something you don’t value!). Even the smallest environmental artifacts help shape a culture. For example, at the last place I worked we had a central table piled with loose Lego pieces — an open invitation to anyone in the room to start making, interacting with each other, and contributing ideas.

Give the culture away

Intentionally creating an artifact of your culture can reinforce a set of values and help you share them with others. When someone on my current team says something funny or easily misinterpreted, folks like to post the phrase and tag it publicly — no context provided. On occasion, we’ll memorialize some of these small sentiments by crafting a sticker with the saying and sharing it with the broader community. (Coming to a sticker near you: “Meow That’s What I Call Music”.) This behavior encourages others to participate and spreads some of our values: we’re always making, we celebrate each other, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.


The stickers may sound goofy, but they highlight the balance that’s essential to so much culture-building: between serious and fun, deliberate and natural. Some artifacts take intention and energy to create. Others emerge on their own, and you just need to help maintain their momentum. 
 
For me, the hardest part is knowing when I’m holding on too tightly, either by limiting the experience of an artifact to my own team or by trying to preserve a custom the team has outgrown. (See why I get those dad comments?) These days, I’m getting better at using artifacts to help outsiders understand and interact with my teams. And I hope I’m getting better at letting artifacts evolve alongside a team’s identity — or even, when the time is right, letting them fade away. I’ll always have the photos.

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