Designing An Authentic Work Culture (Part 1: Un-define)
Creating an authentic, homogenous, and sustainable work culture can take years. This three part series outlines our experiences and learnings in this aspirational journey at #NammaStudio. Often, defining your work culture requires you to first identify what your culture is not. The first part of this series talks about how you can peel away the exterior layers of work life that often get mistaken for culture. The second part focuses on elements that are invariables to the existence of your organization and thus provide a tangible framework for work culture. Lastly, the third part in this series highlights practical examples of choices, actions, and habits in our day-to-day work life to transform culture from being a noun into an action verb. Throughout the series, we will draw inspiration from some of the world’s oldest universal concepts first envisioned more than two millennia ago in the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Upanishads.
Part 1 - Un-define: Identify What Your Culture Is Not
Neti Neti (नेति नेति) is a Sanskrit expression found in the Upanishads which means “not this, not this”, or “neither this, nor that”. It constitutes an analytical meditation helping a person to understand the nature of eternal truth by first understanding what it is not.
Like we disregard the sensations within a dream as unreal, the sages of the Upanishads discarded everything that was in a constant process of change as unreal. Their principle was neti, neti atman: “this is not the self, that is not the self”. When you dig into your own personality deeper, you find layers of perceptions, thoughts, emotions, drives, and memories. The sages found that none of these are permanent and ignored these attributes in their pursuit of true nature of the universe.
Similarly, the neti neti technique can be employed to first deny all things that are typically attributed to culture that do not define your organization’s core identity.
Culture, for example, is often associated with envious perks organizations offer to attract talent. The value of such benefits will invariably evolve and be replaced over time. We made a conscious decision that we cannot let the happy hours, the flexible work schedule, or the lenient dress code to be identified as our culture. These are just symptoms of something embedded much more deeper of what we value of our people.
At times, companies are so deeply engaged in evolving their product or service that the output itself begins to manifest as the culture. Our journey started with a commitment to bring together disciplines of design, business, and technology together to help clients address their challenges in the digital economy. The market trends and the client asks continue to evolve and shift our focus. The quality of our work requires enabling processes to be executed by us, but these processes are not our culture. The behaviors required for us to run our business will have to change as our focus evolves in years to come.
In some cases, organizations grow so tightly around a persona — a leader or a small team who is central to the identity of the brand — that the person or team virtually grabs all the spotlight for what the culture of the company stands for. With a double digit attrition regarded as standard in the geography and business we operate in, we did not want one person or a small group of individuals be the only ones who get to define what our culture needs to be. It was imperative that any individual who is part of our work family should be able to adequately demonstrate the core traits in our culture.
Similarly, there may be other attributes of what may be superficially perceived as culture but in reality do not constitute a core invariable aspect of who you are as an organization. Once you peel away these external aspects of your community at work, the next step is to then define what are those constants that do define your identity.
(Views expressed are personal)