Co-Design & Culture

Organizational culture may not be what we think it is, simply because it isn’t a static thing. That said, perhaps a sharper focus on the human dynamics of creating it is what really matters.

My last post focused on a core background practice of ours, what we call co-design. Co-design is the process we use to surface unseen knowledge in the form of ideas, insights and connections.

There are lots of ways we co-design that include various uses of data, technology and facilitated experiences, but the basic concept is that we let elements emerge from the knowledge of individuals and groups around current realities, rather than working from false assumptions about what an organization, product or market thinks it does or what people conjecture it can do.

Which leads us to this notion of ‘culture’.

There are many definitions of culture, of course. The popular definition of culture is:

“The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”

Quite a nice description. Other more clinical definitions would include:

“How work gets done.”

“Beliefs around what you’re working towards.”

“The setting for team interaction.”

“The ways co-workers feel about a company.”

Some interpretive breakouts would be:

What you do.

What you believe that you do.

That which inspires you to do what you do.

What you actually do that inspires you.

What you do that inspires others.

What others do that inspires you.

Your passions and purpose aligned with others.

Values, Purpose & Culture

Many companies make declarations about their values which lend to some notion of their culture, and there are plenty of examples of their ‘success’ in doing so (Netflix, Zappos, Google, Patagonia, et al).

Here’s the rub: depending on who you talk to, values and culture can be quite elusive. In other words, people can share an experience, and even share language around it, but will their interpretations of ‘what was’ or ‘what is’ (i.e. their realities, and their perception of values) align?

Interpersonal alignment doesn’t really seem to be a core function of work, or culture, but purpose tied to a vision. Patagonia is a great example of a company with a very clear purpose. Startups like Shinola and Warby Parker are also good examples.

In our experience building teams and startups especially, without clarity around a higher purpose (such as: “what do we actually want to do in the world?” Or, “what does the world look like when we’ve integrated our higher purpose into it?”) culture often seems inert. Without each member of a team uniquely expressing oneself in purpose or in-service to something beyond one’s own needs or agendas, culture also remains merely a concept. Perhaps an unattainable one at that (But hey everybody, look, we’ve got ping-pong tables and seven varietals of Kombucha on tap!).

In-service-to propositions are things like:

“We’re in service to eradicating harmful chemicals.”

“We’re in service to providing people with more choices to think about how to improve their lives.”

“We’re in service to making information-sharing a democratic process.”

And so on.

These propositions are not quite the same thing as brand statements, although they can be. The problem is that many companies make declarations that their brands can’t live up to (and vice versa), and so culture seems to be the odd element out. This is mostly because teams can’t adapt very well to rapidly changing market conditions, nor are they led by a higher purpose that can be operationalized on multiple levels.

Technology platforms are a great litmus for this. Iterative development is a given for any incumbent or newcomer wanting to move with a market, yet the process of iteration itself as an experience is a whole other matter. More specifically, how are designers and programmers actually connected to the work? Do they embody a sense of purpose that is reflected in what they deliver? One could argue that in most cases, the answer is emphatically “no”.

Why or how that actually becomes the case is less important right now; what we might want to look at is how personal and collective (company) identity relates to notions of culture and the world you are actually trying to create.

Identity has many dimensions; most often as organizations we ascribe identity to ‘brand’ or ‘position’ or ‘messaging’ or ‘relevancy’ or ‘mission’. These elements are certainly important. Yet, in defining culture, we most often neglect the choices associated with it, as well as the choices we create to even consider what’s possible in terms of (re)shaping it. This tends to be a by-product of static realities rather than the more dynamic realities tied to creating a new or different world, as the graphic suggests.

Pressing Cultural Reset

In the past, when I’ve found myself encountering major trouble spots in operations, I’ve found myself saying things like:

“We’ve got to get the culture right. We know who we are”


“Let’s build a culture of trust and respect. We’ve growing into who we really are.”


“Everything will be fine — we’ve got the culture to pull this off.”

In various ways and in various contexts, I was usually way off in my assessments. Why? Because we looked at culture as something fixed or static, or an ideal, and in the best of situations, as some sort of a bedrock for justifying certain decisions (mostly poor ones). As my business partner, Andrew Markell, has said:

To be clear, it’s not that culture isn’t important; quite the contrary, it is as important as people, teams and leaders make it out to be. With that said, the onus is on each member of the organization to reorient oneself with what culture implies in terms of self-worth, purpose and collective value alignments and/or interpretations thereof.

Alas, silver linings abound. Here’s how we approach the co-design of our training to align and embody emerging cultural attributes:

  • Being open to possibility (not just needing to fix a problem, but creating something else) // an open question to ask: “What is important to me on the outside that I can apply on the inside (and vice versa)?”
  • Interacting within unfamiliar experiences (this can include dialogues and special places, or ‘extra sensory experiences’ that pit people against their own fears, false beliefs, and imbalanced assumptions) // an open question to ask: “What does a creation space look like for me to build up my strengths, address certain weaknesses, and develop a strong relatedness to other people?”
  • Surfacing ideas, inciting actions (aligning on a path, then setting a course in a way that’s exploratory yet sensible and mindful of internal capabilities) // an open question to ask: “What am I really seeing in the process of decision-making and performing tasks?”
  • Understanding shifting roles & archetypes (individual & group adaptations and transformations) // an open question to ask: “How do others react to me (how do I occur to them), and what can I shift in myself on account of what they see?”
  • Mutual (un)(re)learning (encountering what you don’t know that you don’t know) // an open question to ask: “What am I discovering about myself, others and an environment that I wasn’t aware of before?”
  • Mastering interpretation (speech acts and locations along with ongoing actions; a form of mind/body/spirit training) // an open question to ask: “What and how am I carrying forward my observational powers into future interactions without unnecessary judgments or assumptions?”
  • Remaining whole (maintaining a consistent, deeper awareness of ‘the world’, ‘a world’, and ‘your world’; how that affects ongoing group dynamics) // an open question to ask: “How can I build upon the clarity of what I see and constantly share that with others so that we all improve our capacities to learn and grow?”
Hence, ‘culture’ for us is the emergence of values and actions that reflect ongoing internal/external alignments and forward market motion. The core thrust for the individual, therefore, is to challenge oneself to not be right, and then, to watch what happens.

As the world of externalities reveals itself to a host of internal considerations and conflicts (which are, of course, reflexive), the way people train to build culture, and prepare for cultural shifts is critical. Seeing reality in a whole different light opens up the mind and body (and spirit) to new horizons, and to a new relationship with ‘the world’, in large part, by (co)creating a new one.

We hope this exploration is helpful to you in designing your own organizational culture (or structure, if you prefer to call it that).

There will be more posts in this series further exploring the possibilities around co-design, and the implications on how we can do business as well as build markets in truly evolutionary ways.