Let’s talk about culture. Arguably the most discussed—and least understood—topic on the planet.

We can feel it but it’s largely intangible. We can hear it but it exists without noise. We can see it, but it has no rigid form.

Most people think culture is a puzzle. And like a puzzle, there are pieces that fit together. Signs, symbols, languages and rituals. They’re all pieces of any cultural puzzle. And that’s what most organisations focus on when trying to shift their culture.

Let’s get rid of offices! That’s the problem.

Let’s get rid of cubicles! That’s the problem.

Heck, we don’t have a table-tennis table! That’s the problem.

So we repaint, reconfigure, restructure and review everything and everyone trying to piece together a new puzzle. In the end, we stand back when the puzzle is done and our shoulders slump. Humph.

But culture is not simply a puzzle to solve. It’s a mystery. A glorious, frustrating, wonderful mystery. Mysteries can be something we try to solve, but they’re also fluid and unstructured. They’re different, and keep shifting.

The well-trodden path

You’ve seen it plenty of times. The simplified six-step culture change processes that many organisations follow in a desperate attempt to improve:

  1. realise their culture isn’t where it needs to be
  2. look enviously at examples of cultures they’d like to be like
  3. study and decode drivers of these other successful cultures
  4. implement these drivers into their own culture
  5. live in a temporary state of thinking that their culture is getting better
  6. revert to step 1.

Get off the merry-go-round

Look, it’s a well-intentioned effort – this whole six-step path. However, in many cases failure waits just around the next corner. That’s because there’s a fundamental piece missing that is almost always ignored in building, readjusting and maintaining a workplace culture.

And that’s belief.

Six letters that mobilise people more than anything else we’ve ever seen in the history of our species. It’s caused wars, cured disease, bought genocide and birthed human rights. Belief can be both good and evil, and in this case—shaping company culture—it’s the missing step that very few observe.

Most organisations try and shift their culture by adopting new systems, behaviours, rituals, language or values. Yet they don’t really examine the core belief systems held by the people in their business, much less verbalise and question them.

It’s much more than a puzzle to solve

Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Behaviours, language, signs and symbols are all pieces of the culture puzzle, but there’s more to cultural change than fitting pieces of the puzzle together. That’s because your culture is ultimately a physical manifestation of the collective belief held by the people at your work.

That’s the great mystery of culture that few organisations dare to tackle; how do we examine and reshape the deepest beliefs we hold about our work.

It’s intangible and hard. Or at least it is until we start to share and discuss the beliefs that we hold about work and what the experience is for us. That’s the mystery we should start with first. Because all the pieces of the puzzle count for little unless we explore the surface on which they lay.

Getting deep here

Now I know the expansive thinking, early-adopting, thought leaderish leader will respond favourably, but the linear, list-making-and-loving leader will say “I don’t get it. That’s super vague. Just tell me what I need to do in simple terms!”

OK, let’s make it crystal clear. Ask these questions (almost daily):

  • What would we need to believe, to be radically different/better than we are right now?
  • What do we continue to believe that doesn’t help us be different/better?

The real and permanent culture change starts with questions (and conversations) like these.

I possess an unshakeable belief that work—this third of your life you donate your precious time to—is something that can be immensely fulfilling and rewarding. It can improve every other area of your life. And yet we’re fully aware many people approach work as the thing you have to suffer through on your way towards retirement. Imagine what it would take to shift your beliefs about work beyond the beige to something extraordinary?

That’s a mystery worth thinking about.