Organisational culture: Tales of successes are critical, but lie side by side with stories of perseverance and resilience in hard times

Organisational culture: Tales of successes are critical, but lie side by side with stories of perseverance and resilience in hard times


In addition to studying the adventures of the founders to understand organisational culture or corporate DNA or cultivating one, it is always important to review significant internal and external stories that punctuate the company’s history.

Tales of expansion, new product launches and other successes are valuable, but so are stories of perseverance during difficult times, as well as how people behaved when facing overwhelming challenges and setbacks.

Exercise #1: Explore your past

• Prepare in advance by having each person read relevant stories from your organisation’s past. In addition, ask people to think of stories from their own work experience that demonstrate your cultural DNA at it’s very best.

• Sitting in a circle, have each person share a story that had the most positive impact on them, and explain why it impacted them.

• Writing BIG on sticky notes, have everyone in the group jot down a keyword or two that capture the ‘essence’ of the company’s identity from each story.

• Place these sticky notes on flipcharts in the centre of the circle as shown in this picture.

• Next, create a collage by combining these words with pictures that capture this essence in a way that words alone cannot describe. Ask participants to bring magazines and other pictures that express the cultural DNA, or use a set of pictures like CCL’s Visual Explorer Cards.

• Doing this activity silently is particularly useful for teams where people don’t share mastery of a common language.

• Play some music in the background to set the mood! Piece these collages together to create a patchwork quilt that vividly conveys your cultural DNA. Don’t you dare just throw them away when the exercise is over!

Preserve and share them widely. If the collage activity is just too ‘arts and craft-sy’ for your people, try this variation:

• Gather in small teams around white boards, and together silently draw a picture that captures the essence of these stories. Then have each team present their team drawing without preparation.

What essential qualities and characteristics of your organisation’s culture were demonstrated through their drawings and presentations? Encourage the entire group to discuss the key qualities of your culture that were demonstrated by each team’s interpretation. Here are guidelines for useful discussions to follow the above exercises:

• Discuss what will survive into the far future. What will still be ‘core’ 50 years from now? Determine which of these qualities and characteristics should be passed on to future generations and preserved for the long-term future of your organisation.

• Brainstorm how these core cultural elements serve as guiding principles in your business today. What stories from your own experience align with these principles? What other situations are you facing that could benefit from the values and behaviours modelled in these stories? How can we demonstrate the very best of our collective past through our own behaviours in the present? Sharing and discussing these stories as a team can produce powerful insights about what is admired and valued in your organisation, and influences people to behave similarly.

Who we are NOT!

In general, people seem to find it easier to think from a negative perspective, and the next exercise directly appeals to that tendency. This is a fabulously fun exercise, and one that even engineers enjoy. Ideally you should do it right after the first exercise.

Exercise #2: This will never happen here!

• Break into teams of three or four people.

• Gather at flipcharts and brainstorm the following categories:

  • Products that you will NEVER make
  • Services that your will NEVER offer
  • News headlines you will NEVER see about your organisation
  • Advertising slogans that you will NEVER use
  • Famous people you will NEVER feature in advertising about your organisation
  • Behaviour and language you will NEVER witness at work.

You can also add other categories for this brainstorm that are relevant to your business. One of my clients, famous for adventurous outdoor sports equipment, had a terrific time with this one. Rest assured, they are never going to make “senior diapers,” their slogan won’t ever be “You’re in good hands,” and Lady Gaga will never get an offer to promote their extreme sports products. You can take this exercise one step further by reversing each of these “NEVERS” to discover who you are, your values, your strategies, and what your organisation values most.

Remember the future

Dreamers and scenario planners have been using this technique for years. Jump into the future and vividly imagine a possibility and then explore what that scenario implies about the behaviour and choices required today to bring that future into existence. This exercise will set the stage for you and your team to be “Cultural DNA Ambassadors,” spreading the best of your identity to everyone who comes into contact with you.

Exercise #3: Imagining your future

• Imagine it’s 50 years from now, and you have long since retired. What will be your legacy? What stories do you hope people in your organisation will talk about you and your team?

• Self-organise into small groups, and create “stories from the future”. For example, you might imagine that your company is celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the launch of your amazing product or service. Or perhaps 100 newly hired employees are crammed into a room to watch a video about how your team tackled and overcame seemingly impossible challenges. What do you hope they will be saying as they discuss your historical stories?

• Present your stories as a “news report from the future”, complete with roving reporters, satellite links to remote locations, and interviews of some of your now-retired team members. Don’t skimp on the drama! Set up a news desk, get some pretend microphones (a rubber chicken works great for this), and ham it up! Imagining the future is the first step to creating it!

Just reading about these exercises doesn’t even come close to the experience of living it. Don’t underestimate the creativity of your team! I’ve done this exercise with all kinds of people in all kinds of jobs, from executives to engineers, and everyone – including the stodgiest curmudgeons – totally loves it. Your future cultural DNA is in your hands. For better or worse, today’s workplace behaviours will become tomorrow’s organisational history.

As a leader, you are automatically a Cultural DNA ambassador. Don’t just slap a purpose-vision mission-values propaganda poster on the wall! Hanging a big sign over the doghouse door that reads “You are a cat” won’t suddenly make your golden retriever meow, hunt mice or go crazy for catnip. And don’t allow yourself be trapped by your organisation’s past! You might have been born with straight black hair, but you can dye it platinum blond and get a perm if you like. Finally, take advantage of the power of selective forgetting.


That’s nothing more than health and a poor memory —Albert Schweitzer

At one Wiefling family reunion my brother read a heart-warming poem about what it meant to be a Wiefling. Honestly, I didn’t remember our childhood being all that much fun. But he was extremely skilful in choosing which stories to tell and which to leave out.

As rough and tumble as our family is, everyone had tears in their eyes by the time he finished. (And I definitely prefer his version to the one that I remember!) Our organisation’s cultural DNA is a doorway, not a prison.

The stories we tell influence our beliefs, our thinking, and ultimately our behaviours. Don’t go the way of companies like Enron! Create a shared story that you will be proud to hear told 50 years from now.

  • A Tell report / Kimberly Wiefling is President of Wiefling Consulting; co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, and author of Scrappy Project Management; a global business leadership consultant, and a force of nature – the good kind! She specialises in global team effectiveness – helping teams achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult.
About author

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *