Think about your culture as a pilgrimage

Think about your culture as a pilgrimage

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You have a culture if your organisation is over a few days old. It’s made of how you do things and is rooted in values. It’s also in flux.

Every person you hire and fire, office you open and close, market you enter or exit shapes activity and know-how.

I’ve previously written about the relationship between culture and brand, but a recent read has expanded that thinking. What hasn’t changed is culture as a harbinger of the accumulating or eroding value stored by your brand. Where it exerts significant influence and is a decisive factor in whether people keep or break promises.

In his book, Culture, The Story of Us from Cave Art to K-Pop, author Martin Puchner notes, “Culture is not a possession, but something we hand down so that others may use it in their own way; culture is a vast recycling project which small fragments from the past are retrieved to generate new and surprising ways of meaning-making.” (page xviii)

While Puchner talks about civilisation broadly, framing culture as the exchange of future and past within present activity is also helpful for organisations. It also mocks the idea of unchanging monoliths communicated in handbooks with borders protected by zealous hiring.

What if you embraced the exchange?

Culture is a collective of how people do things. Both deliberate choices and happenstance influence the outcome. But records are always incomplete—gaps litter history. Know-how gets lost when people leave. Insignificant acts attain mythical status, while seminal moments disappear into the crevasse of time.

Yet the one element always present is the jolt organisations feel when people join or leave. Where I live, how I spend my time, my friends and family, school and workplaces, all contribute scraps of cultural DNA. And when I move jobs, fragments come with me, and some are left behind. Similar to pilgrims, the travels of modern workers always leave a mark.

Finding a way to tell that story might hold the key to a more robust reckoning that meshes the past into the present instead of replacing it.

Puchner tells the story of Xuanzang, who travelled from China to India in the 5th century. Upon his return, he penned the Record of the Western Regions, an early travelogue capturing his 16-year journey across foreign lands. Consider the benefits of a culture handbook if framed as a travelogue in the spirit of Xuanzang. (page 72)

Overall, org culture can feel intractable and hard to change. But zoom in, and you’ll see pilgrims asserting their DNA, co-opting past cultural fragments and adapting them to the present, shaping the future in often surprising ways.

Just as a brand’s store of value grows and shrinks, so too no culture is static. Don’t stamp out that richness. Embrace it.

See you next time,

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