“The cadence of measurement is less important than the cadence of action.”
—Didier Elzinga, CEO & Founder of culture analytics platform Culture Amp
Didier Elzinga, CEO and Founder of culture analytics platform Culture Amp, joined us on the Creative Confidence Series to talk about applying design thinking mindsets to culture and people operations, turning culture insights into actions, and making change happen from wherever you sit. Listen to more episodes of the Creative Confidence Podcast.
The Japanese process of enso, drawing a circle in one brushstroke, is a meditative act. Didier Elzinga, CEO and founder of Culture Amp, relates it to the cycle of continuous learning needed to improve your organization’s culture—it’s like asking a question and listening for an answer, over and over again. This cycle is so central to Culture Amp’s approach to organizational change that they modeled their logo on the enso.
Didier founded Culture Amp, the world’s leading culture analytics platform, in 2009. With venture capital backing and a rapidly expanding customer base, the company is differentiating itself by looking at the employee survey in a holistic, human-centered way—as part of a larger feedback loop. While people often describe the company’s offering as a “feedback platform,” Didier says “it's the loop that matters.”
Didier joined us on the Creative Confidence Series to discuss Culture Amp’s approach to organizational change, steps for actioning insights, and how to keep a loop of feedback flowing to enable continual iteration.
Collect, Understand, Act Framework for Change
Collecting baseline information about a challenge is just the first step. To make lasting change happen, you have to understand what that information is telling you and make a plan of action. Then start over again by collecting more information on the action you took. Didier says this cycle, inspired by the process of design thinking, is at the core of any successful, sustainable change.
At Culture Amp, an employee survey is step one. “That's the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” he says.
Next, comes analyzing the data, but be warned—there are many pitfalls to avoid in this step. The ethics of data analysis is an area where Didier wants to dive deeper. Computers can do advanced statistical analysis, but he isn’t convinced we always understand how to apply that data to individuals and real life scenarios. For example, if your data indicates that statistically women in engineering organizations are more likely to leave the company, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one woman on a team is more likely to leave than one man is.
Taking action follows data analysis. This is where Didier often sees companies struggling—either trying to do too much at once, or losing steam after executing a survey and sharing out findings.
4 Steps for Taking Action to Make a Cultural Change
One misconception the Culture Amp team often sees is companies who think they need to survey their employees constantly. While it’s important to continually collect feedback and keep communication channels open, “the cadence of measurement is less important than the cadence of action,” Didier believes.
To overcome that “where do we even start?” feeling and shift from data collection and analysis mode into an action mindset, Didier shares four pieces of advice.
1 — Find focus
When companies get the results back from an employee survey, “there are so many good things you could do that there's an overwhelming desire to try and do all of them,” Didier says. Fight that urge and choose just one or two areas where your data indicates a change could have the most impact. There’s always the opportunity to do more later. Be realistic about your resources and know that it will be easier to get people on board with your plan—and measure your impact—if you focus your efforts.
2 — Turn problems into questions
Before jumping ahead to solutions, first expand your thinking by framing your cultural challenge as a question. Then, share this question with your entire organization. Didier says it’s important to be open that this challenge is one your company has and it’s okay to not yet know the answer. This allows employees to become invested in the need for change and to offer input so that when a solution is proposed, they’re more excited about the work to be done.
“Creating these spaces to allow us to explore problems is hugely powerful and not expensive,” Didier says.
One of his favorite ways to practice this piece of advice is through a simple shift in meetings. When starting a meeting, make a rule that for the first five minutes, no one can offer an answer. All you can do is ask a question. Didier says he finds himself itching to offer solutions, but then “someone will ask a question and I'll suddenly realize that I hadn't found the problem properly.”
3 — Learn from positive deviance
Now that you’ve focused in on one or two key questions, look for people or groups inside your organization who are already exemplifying the behaviors you seek—what Didier calls positive deviance (an idea similar to the design research best practice of learning from extremes). He says not to worry so much about benchmarks: “It's much more interesting to look at what's going on inside and to look at who's doing it well internally than it is to look at what's going on outside.”
Once you’ve found those people that are already succeeding, asking this group to write a report on their process will likely fall flat. Instead, bring others in to observe how they do it.
Didier references an example from the book Better, by Atul Gawande, where the World Health Organization was trying to launch a program for undernourished children. One of their most successful approaches was to seek out villages where children were getting the most nourishment, then invite people from other villages to come see what they were doing and ask questions. Afterward, they didn’t give instructions or dictate any actions. Instead, villagers took it upon themselves to implement what they learned in their own ways.
“Change is not done at the top usually,” Didier says. “And it often starts with a small group of people.”
“The heart of culture and the power of culture is in telling stories, but it's also around understanding that culture is uncovered, not created.”
4 — Encourage change instead of mandating it
People are seeking purpose and meaning in their work now more than ever. Top-down directives, no matter how logical they may be, can fail to ignite the passion needed for a group of people to make a significant change in behavior.
“We're talking about culture here,” Didier says. “We need to engage people's hearts, not just their minds.”
Toyota is a company Didier admires for their bottom-up approach to change. When seeking to improve production, they didn’t standardize best practices across the organization, but rather shared what was working in each manufacturing location and left it up to employees to decide which tactics to apply. He says there’s an important message here: “Anyone in the company can create a better way.”
Storytelling is one of his favorite approaches for inspiring change as a leader. It’s a “show, don’t tell” way of leading. One of Culture Amp’s customers exemplified this approach when a leader gifted a high performing team member a trip to an exclusive hotel. Upon their return, the leader explained that the trip wasn’t just a reward for high performance, but because “I wanted you to feel the way you made our customers feel.” Sharing that story helps people understand what customer service means. Telling people, “We must focus on the customer,” does not.
You can’t tell a story too many times, Didier says. There will always be somebody hearing it for the first time, and these stories become the cornerstone of your culture and what it means to work for your organization.
“The heart of culture and the power of culture is in telling stories, but it's also around understanding that culture is uncovered, not created,” Didier says. “You don't sit in a room and design your culture. Your culture emerges out of how people relate to each other and interact with each other.”
Consistency is the Ultimate Goal
Going back to the feedback loop, Didier believes that there is no “done” when building a healthy culture. If employees at your company are happy, doing better means being more consistent with your culture. He thinks about it on two axes. One axis is how strong your culture is on the best day, and the second is how consistent, accessible, and available that culture to everyone in the company.
So go back to the “collect” step of Culture Amp’s change framework and start again. Keep drawing your circle, asking questions, and listening for answers. The art of enso can be practiced for a lifetime.
Learn more about inspiring change in an organization, community, or network through movements, not mandates in our online course Designing for Change.