How to Design the Culture of Your Organization

Culture is prominent in every organization, whether that organization realizes it or not. It s how the organization feels—it’s the heart of the organization. It is more powerful than vision, mission or strategy and it happens by default or by design.

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I talk about culture often and that’s because when I discovered that culture is more powerful than vision, mission or strategy it became a focus and one that we decided to design on our own. Culture is prominent in every organization, whether that organization realizes it or not. It happens by default or it happens by design. Culture is how the organization feels—it’s the heart of the organization.

It’s based on how the organization naturally behaves, thinks, and feels. Its why Tim Hortons feels different than a Starbucks or why an A&W feels different than the Keg. It’s about the atmosphere, the behaviours, attitudes of everyone in the organization, etc.

So, about 4 years ago we decided to design the culture we wanted to work in. So, as a staff we took 3 months in our weekly staff meetings and designed the kind of church we all wanted to work in. I asked the team questions like, “what do you value most?” or “what are our non-negotiables? The things we are doing that we just can’t imagine not doing anymore?”  And when the team started answering them, we wrote all of the answers down on a huge whiteboard and then the next week, I asked the same questions again until we had exhausted all of the answers. Then we took all of the answers and began to see similarities in many of them and we narrowed them down to ten simple cultural codes we try to live by.

If you don’t design your culture, you will be a slave to it Click To Tweet

It was a lot of work. But again, culture will happen by design or by default. I’d rather design my culture than have it happen by default, because culture will determine what vision, mission, or strategy will work or not work. If you don’t design your culture, then you will be a slave to it and it will become much more difficult to implement a vision or strategy within your organization. It was a lot of work for us to design the culture we wanted to work in, but I’m telling you, the 3 months we spent were maybe the most important 3 months we ever spent as a staff because that investment has allowed all of us to move the vision forward at a much more productive rate.

Culture Code: We Mess With The Methods

We guard our hearts against the thought that “we’ve never done it that way”

Just that one code would shut down a lot of traditional thought about ministry.  When a ministry removes that phrase from the daily dialogue of their staff, what happens? Well, awesomeness happens! Creativity happens. Permission to look at things differently happens. Permission to change things up happens. We simplified this desire in the simple statement “We mess with the methods.” This allows all of our people to challenge the process safely and to look at new ways of doing things. It also subtly gives us a guideline to walk within—when we say we mess with the methods it also tells us that we don’t mess with the message. The message is sacred, the methods are not.

Guarding our hearts is key to effective leadership. I read a statement from someone that said that culture is the “heart of the organization.” The first thing that came to my mind was Solomon’s statement in Proverbs 4 when he said, “above all else, guard your heart.” Of course he’s talking to us personally, but I think it is just as important for an organization to “guard its heart” or in other words “guard its culture.”

The rest of that scripture says that “out of our hearts flows the issues of life” and the word “issues” refers to boundaries.  That takes this thought to a whole different level.  The Hebrew word for issues can be defined as a fence or property boundary. So, take that in context and it means that the culture you design in your organization will determine the boundary of the vision you can undertake. That puts a whole new level of importance on designing the right culture for your organization!

The culture you design will determine the boundary of the vision you undertake. Click To Tweet

Culture Code: We Never Waste A Crisis

We guard our hearts against being overwhelmed by problems

The typical church’s schedule can be a whirlwind of activities and then from outside the whirlwind comes a crisis.  One way we guard our hearts is by being aware that dealing with crisis is part of what we do. Imagine a doctor or an EMT being overwhelmed by crisis? They don’t because, that is what they are there for. Sometimes, in the middle of a crisis situation, I have to remind myself and our team that this is what we are there for. Part of our job is to help people through a crisis and to point them to the One who is the hope—the anchor for their soul—in the middle of the chaos. That means that we as pastors and church leaders need to know where our hope comes from and who is our source of peace. We need to be anchored in our faith in God in order to bring hope to others.

One thing I do is ask them if they see an opportunity in the crisis. Hidden in every problem is an opportunity. Dr. George Hill calls this “crisitunity.” Did you know that more millionaire’s were made in the Great Recession than in any other time in history before that? These were people who saw opportunity in the middle of a crisis when others only saw problems. So, I try to focus on finding the opportunity and try to focus my team on the same.

Culture Code: We Lead With Vision

We guard our hearts against becoming reactionary

One culture code that I see modelled here on a day to day basis can be one of the most challenging.  MyVictory is a busy place, stuff happens on a regular basis, opportunities abound. One code that proves valuable over and over again is this one: We guard our hearts against becoming reactionary”. This is key, because it is so easy as leaders to lead by reaction instead of with vision. Because part of our job involves problem solving it is so easy to slip into the whirlwind of just reacting to the next problem.

The best leaders get out in front of the problems by leading with vision. Solomon said it this way, “the wise see trouble coming and avoid it.” One way of avoiding trouble is by leading with vision and speaking the solution before the problem becomes a problem. This statement is really about keeping your eyes up and leading ahead of the problems. It’s also about having an agricultural paradigm rather than a mechanical one. What I mean by that is a mechanic only fixes things, whereas a farmer plants seed today in order to reap a harvest down the road. An agricultural paradigm is realizing I can plants seeds of vision today that will solve the problems of tomorrow before we even get there.

Culture Code: We Need To Know

We guard our hearts against secret cliques and under-communication.

New staff members face challenges beyond just their new job description, often its the challenge of understanding the culture when it’s not written or talked about. It’s especially difficult for new staff members to come into a culture with a long history, especially when existing staff members have lived that history. New staff members ask questions and often get “readers digest” type answers.  Unintentionally, existing staff may give incomplete information. It’s hard for those who lived history to clarify it from the perspective of a new staff person. For growing churches, hiring and expanding their staff is constant. 

Our thought and simple statement is “We need to know.” I hate the statement “this is on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.” This thinking creates an incredibly political atmosphere that is deadly to teamwork and buy in. We do everything possible to let people know everything and to avoid secrets. This has become increasingly difficult as we have grown so quickly and there is a lot that is happening. But the intent is to avoid secrets and to do what we can to over communicate everything. One way we have done this is by resisting becoming an organization that communicates only from the top down. We all participated in creating these culture codes and we all enforce them. As much as is possible, we try to involve as many people as possible in the planning of events and strategies to keep everyone on the need to know basis and to avoid information only flowing from the top down.

Culture Code: We Are All In

We guard our hearts against an attitude of “that’s not my job”.

Traditionally, job descriptions were an end all for discussions about whose job it is. Our culture code of we guard our hearts against an attitude of “that’s not my job” takes that conversation off the table. 

“We are all in” was important to us because we didn’t want to slip into a rut of becoming territorial with doing only our job and not being willing to help someone else do theirs even if we saw they could use our help. I’ve been in church all my life and I  have seen the habit of people walking past a piece of garbage in the hall, unwilling to pick it up because that’s not their job, or of not being willing to help haul equipment in to the auditorium because they were not part of the set up team. We’re all in. We all can pitch in and help anyone, anywhere, at any time. That’s how we guard our heart against becoming territorial in our positions and against the attitude of “that’s not my job.” 

Purposely Design Your Culture

Culture Codes shape the “personality” of a local church or business. Guarding our heart specifically on a set of codes, by definition of culture, sets a pattern of thinking, acting and feeling for our people to mirror. Every church has a culture, whether it’s by default or by design. We chose to design ours because we wanted to created an atmosphere that was going to be welcoming to anyone and everyone who came through our doors. And we regularly hear positive comments from first time visitors about how they felt coming into our building. I want to challenge every pastor to look at their culture and if there is something that doesn’t feel right, work on redesigning the culture before you implement vision in that area. And I must caution every leader listening. While you might like some of our culture codes and want to implement them in your church or business, I want you to know that it was the process of working them through together as a team that was probably more important than what we came up with because we are all very passionate about these codes and we all guard them together. So, take the time to work through as a team to design the culture that works for you because that will help you stay on mission to reach every available person at every available time by every available means with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.

If you’re listening and would like a copy of our culture codes, you can download the complete set here.

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