Your Corporate Culture’s “Artifacts” - What Would Indiana Jones Say?

One of my all-time favorite movies is, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The film kept me on the edge of my seat. While the fight and chase scenes were exciting, I found the scenes of the archaeological digs to be especially engaging. When Jones found and explored the desert chamber I felt like I was right there with him. As he made discovery after discovery, I thought, what a thrill it must be to discover something that has been hidden for thousands of years.

I have always been fascinated by the work of archaeologists. They are able to take physical artifacts of ancient civilizations and construct a rich portrait of what that civilization was like. They can describe the culture of the people who lived there – their beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors. They can tell us how the people of that civilization interacted with each other and how they looked at the world. Sometimes just the smallest artifact can tell an archaeologist so much about a civilization’s culture. If there also happens to be written records from the civilization, we can almost feel what it must have been like to be a part of that culture (the good and the bad).

Corporate Culture or Corporate Wish

Every business also has a culture. It’s made up of the beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors of its employees – just like a civilization’s culture. Corporate culture is a very real thing. The question is not, “do we have a culture?” (you do); the question is, “have we defined our culture and do we reinforce it with everything we do?”

I once consulted with a company that claimed to have a very customer-centered culture. “The customer is everything and everyone’s main focus is the customer experience,” claimed the CEO. Yet, there was no physical evidence to support that claim. Everywhere I turned, the physical evidence suggested a culture that really valued company procedures, process manuals, and rigid rules. I couldn’t even find a photograph of a customer anywhere in the company’s headquarters. So, is the company’s main focus truly the customer experience or is that just what they want it to be? That’s the difference between a corporate culture and a corporate wish.

Uncovering the Artifacts of Your Corporate Culture

Imagine that one day your company or department moves to another location. You have no notice; you can take nothing with you. You will start from scratch at your new location; literally abandoning your current location. Imagine that at some later date I stumble upon your previous digs and begin playing the role of an archaeologist. I start digging through all of the artifacts that were left behind. What conclusions would I come to about your organization’s culture? Remember, I have no company representatives to talk to; I can only base my conclusions on the physical evidence I uncover. Would my discoveries lead me to conclude that your culture is what you say it is?

What would the pictures on the walls tell me? Imagine that I sit down at an office desk or in a workstation and look at the physical environment – what would I say about your company values? I’ve worked with many companies who say they value attention to detail. Yet the physical evidence says they value chaos and sloppiness. Other companies say they value creativity and personal expression, yet the physical evidence shows they really value conformity.

Imagine further that I, the archeologist, discover some your company’s training materials, such as handbooks and videos. I go through those materials with a fine-toothed comb to discover what the culture (company) taught it’s youth (new hires). Would the emphasis of these materials lead me to come to the conclusions you want me to come to?

One my first requests when consulting with an organization is to see their new hire training materials. Many organizations that claim to value service excellence devote little or no training time to the subject. One “service-oriented” company had a two-day new hire program. I poured through the training materials hoping to find some content regarding customer service. I found some – about 15-minutes worth of material in the entire two days. Keep in mind that the other material was important; but customer service clearly took a backseat to everything else. The evidence (artifacts) did not point to a service-oriented company.

Become Your Company’s Indiana Jones

Look at your organization as an archaeologist would. You can do this yourself or with a team of people. First, review your company’s mission, vision, and values – most companies have them on a laminated card somewhere. Then, take a walk through the organization. If it’s a hospital, start in the parking lot and walk through each floor of the hospital. If it’s a bank, start in the parking lot and walk through every area of the branch. If it’s a manufacturing plant, walk the floor of the plant. Travel through all areas of the organization. Pay particular attention to the employee areas. Employee areas often provide the best evidence of the real culture. See if the physical evidence aligns with your stated mission, vision, and values. You may be surprised by the gaps you discover.

Do you say you value diversity? Take a look at the photos on the “executive wall of fame.” Do you say you value respect for employees? Take a look at the quality of the employee break room. Do you say you value creativity? Take a look at the sea of uniform cubicles. Is creativity in evidence? Remember, in this exercise you can’t go by what people say, you can only go by what you see – the physical evidence.

Here are some questions to ask:

• What do our customer areas say we value? Look at the furniture, the pictures, the layout of the area, the fixtures, the restroom, etc.

• What do our employee areas (offices, cubicles, break rooms, cafeteria’s, locker rooms, etc.) say we value?

• What do our training materials and training facility say we value?

• What does our hiring process say we value? For example, if “right fit talent” is a value, and you can find no evidence of a documented behavioral interviewing process, there is a disconnect there. An archaeologist can’t conclude that you value right fit talent if there are no artifacts to support it.

Be critical as you play the archaeologist role. Don’t make excuses like, “Well, I know we talk about customer service in new hire orientation, we just don’t have it written down.” That means you are leaving an important part your desired culture to chance, relying on best intentions to make sure it’s communicated. Physical evidence increases the likelihood that your desired culture is hardwired into the operation.

“But we communicate our culture through stories, not stuff!”

At this point, you may be thinking, “Isn’t storytelling an important part of perpetuating the culture? And if so, storytelling doesn’t require physical artifacts.” I agree that storytelling, dialogue, and face-to-face interactions are all important in building and sustaining a corporate culture, and I believe that these must also be aligned with what we want the culture to be. But physical artifacts are the evidence that values are hardwired (or not). They aren’t reliant on personalities or the ever changing dynamics of the market, economy, or executive whims. Time, thought, and planning go into aligning physical artifacts with the desired culture.

I love stories. I love to tell them and I love to hear them. I always ask my clients to share stories and legends of the organization so that I can get a feel for the culture. It’s tragic to discover that these great stories usually aren’t written down anywhere. It’s sad when company founders and legends retire or pass away and no one thought to get their stories on video so that they can be shared verbatim with others in the organization and people just joining the organization. Great stories make great artifacts; but in order to last, the stories must take a physical form.

Final Thoughts

A culture cannot be wished into existence. When Indiana Jones came upon a key find in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he did not find wishes. He found stuff. This stuff led him to other stuff and helped him to make conclusions about a culture (and to make a great movie).

Really take a hard look at the physical artifacts of your organization and determine what an archaeologist would conclude. Are these artifacts aligned with what you say your culture is? If not, it’s time to make some changes. It’s time to create the tools and environment that support the culture, not detract from it.

Here’s an example. I had the opportunity to work with a hospital that says it values appreciation. Every employee I met reinforced this value – and I found it to be genuine. I would’ve known they value appreciation, however, without meeting anyone. Throughout the hospital there were boxes for patients and employees to deposit employee compliments. And there were many compliments in the boxes that had just been deposited. One entire wall in an employee corridor was lined with whiteboards and markers for employees to write any kind of compliment they wished regarding another employee or the hospital itself. These whiteboards were filled with the most wonderful compliments ranging from “thanks for covering my shift” to “thanks for cleaning up the patient’s room after the ‘incident.’” Some comments were funny and some were touching. It made me feel good just to read them; and I don’t even work there.

These artifacts and others led me to a single conclusion; this hospital has a culture that values appreciation. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that.

Something to think about: Based on physical evidence, what would an archaeologist say about your organization's culture?