Where does culture come from? We all seem to know that we have a great culture: ask any tech entrepreneur or people manager, and they will rave about their entrepreneurial, meritocratic, familial culture. But where does culture come from? How can culture be harnessed?
How can your particular culture be articulated? These are the questions that should keep you up at night if you run a company full of knowledge workers.
Consider the anthropological perspective. Up until the middle of the 20th century, a culture was a segmented, racially consistent group of people who normally, but not always, lived in close proximity to one another. A culture was a group of human beings that shared physical characteristics, a language and a cohesive mythology — a set of stories that expressed their values and beliefs about the world. Not everyone thought or believed the same thing. Instead, these underlying stories created a shared eco-system in which intellectual and ideological arguments could occur.
The storytelling word for this eco-system is context. CONTEXT CREATES CULTURE.
Then came the technological revolution, and context exploded. The global became the local. In Thomas Friedman’s words, the world became flat again. Over the last 40 to 50 years, technological change has forced all of us to shift our individual contexts. In business terms, we call this shift in context disruption — the act of changing the boundaries on the world.
More and more, the world seems divided between the people who have adapted to the new context, and people who want to turn back the clock again.
But enough of the history lesson. You want the goods. What is it about culture that creates motivation, alignment and passion? What is it that creates trust? Consider the mythological again. The point of those ancient stories isn’t creating total draconian allegiance. (At least, not normally.) The point is to create a context for conversation, for discovery, for innovative thought.
If you’re building a culture, you don’t want the answers. You want the questions.
What questions? The questions worth answering, of course! The questions that challenge the bright and idealistic. Why is Tesla consistently rated the most innovative company in the world? Tesla doesn’t manufacture cars, or solar roofs, or brilliant ideas. Tesla manufactures questions. How will we solve the climate crisis? Will we be able to develop colonies on other planets? These questions engage employees much more meaningfully than a culture of foozeball tables.
These questions create a context for growth.
Or consider Apple in the Steve Jobs era. What questions was that business asking? Can the experience of using technology be taken out of the hands of the quintessential IT employee? Can technology empower liberal values?
For the employees working for a business, those questions inspire. For the customers buying a product, those questions connect.
What questions is your business asking?
Simon Sinek says that customers buy why you sell it. I say that customers buy the questions that you’re answering. The same questions your employees are answering by coming to work today. There’s a beautiful symmetry here: a shared sense of purpose that constellates between employees, leadership and the marketplace.
Don’t look for product-market fit. Figure out the questions.
How do you find the questions? By finding something you and your organization truly believe in, planting your flag on that hilltop and defending it with all your might. Find your question by digging into your origin story, or by flushing out your vision of the future. Sure, you want to be rich. Great. But why? To what end? And then what? So you can cure the disease that afflicts your brother? So you can end harassment that afflicts your sister? So you can teach the children so that they don’t struggle the same way that you did?
What does it mean to be rich? What does it mean to be wealthy? What does it meant to be human, or equal, or liberal, or conservative? The point isn’t to answer the questions. The point is to ask the questions first, and then to build your business as the process of answering the questions.
These are the questions that truly connect. These are the questions that create the context. These are the questions that inspire genuine inspiration. These are the questions that build a future worth living in.
These are the questions that have sustained culture for 30,000 years.
Jordan Bower is the founder of Transformational Storytelling.