Organizational Cultures

The complex ecosystems that makeup organizations naturally shape an organization’s culture. The cultures that exist among organizations can encourage innovation and revolutionary thinking and be conducive to the tasks at hand, or they can be detrimental to healthy work environment and the result can lead to an organization’s demise.  I am curious about how these cultures evolve, and what kinds of influences determine their direction. More importantly, how can design be used as a tool to help organizations overcome cultural barriers in the short-run while also recognizing the need for change and developing new, healthier cultures to sustain organizations for the long-run.

When considering successful organizational cultures, Apple and Steve Jobs natural enter the conversation. Here is a video of Keith Yamashita of SYPartners talking about his time working with Mr. Jobs. In the first 5 minutes, Mr. Yamashita shares a story of how Steve Job’s attention to detail led him to not only criticize the asymmetry on a seemingly, functional piece of circuitry, but it also led to the tiles in the company bathroom to get relaid 3 times because of two askew pieces. While you can certainly argue that this type of attention to detail can seem over the top, it is exactly this type of attention to detail that has permeated throughout Apple and has contributed to their success.

An example of a successful cultural shift in an organization, is what Paul O’Neill was able to accomplish at Alcoa. When Mr. O’Neill was brought on to be the CEO of the aluminum company, his first meeting with the board memebers was a deviation from the previous conversations the board members had grown accustomed to hearing. Mr. O’Neill spent the majority of the time explaining a new focus on worker safety instead of explaining how he was eager to “maximize profit and minimize expenses” which made the board members a bit uneasy.

Paul O’Neill’s focus on employee safety saved the failing company by introducing a new procedure for managers every time a worker was injured on-the-job. When a worker was injured, the manager was now required to report the injury, why it happened, and how it will be prevented in the future, within 24 hours of the incident. This simple requirement completely changed the work environment. As injuries were reported, measures were taken to improve safety, and inevitably, this led to profit for the company. Suddenly manufacutring lines were stopping less frequently, and workers stopped having to take paid-leave to recover from an injury.

Both of these examples show the significance of how cultures can affect the workplace. The Alcoa example is a fascinating success because Mr. O’Neill was able to recognize an opportunity that everyone could rally behind which led to a healthier workplace ultimately leading to a more profitable company. Most organization’s cultures take months or even years to change. Design can help explore the need for change and tools can be developed to help overcome cultural barriers.

In my experience, I have been able to leverage design tools to overcome cultural obstacles. I have used scaffolding tools that have made interviews generative which have helped prevent conversations from getting off track. I have also had success with changing the presentation of information by covering the wall with my findings from my research and allowing my client to interpret the information themselves. These methods of engaging with the client have been deviations from the norm and have helped lead to more successful problem solving. However, these methods have only been successful during these interaction. I am interested in leveraging design as a tool to help encourage sustained, cultural change that the client can maintain long after I have left the room.


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