Could your culture benefit from co-creation?

Here are 3 ways to co-create organizational culture.

Co-creating organizational culture can reinvigorate organizations by fully engaging employees, improving performance and increasing productivity. Healthy organizational culture often has clear guiding principles or values, which help employees thrive in today’s ever-changing world. However, employees often struggle with what they can believe and value at their workplace, especially when they face challenging situations such as budgets cuts, restructuring and increasing workload demands.

Learning leaders can help to co-create organizational culture by facilitating the following three-step approach, which was developed based on the “personal leadership credo.”

Step 1: Individual reflection: Co-creating organizational culture should start from each individual level. It helps each individual feel ownership. Every individual feels and interprets what organizational culture means differently. Therefore, a simple lifeline exercise could enable each individual to reflect on their life journey and better understand themselves. The lifeline exercise provides a great opportunity for individuals to reflect on significant life events or crisis moments in their professional life. People who go through the lifeline exercise identify their challenging life events as turning points, and in some cases, positive incidents. Individual reflection occurs when people encounter disorienting dilemmas about their challenging situations and experiences, and try to make meaning of incidents and the actions they take based on their experiences. Therefore, the exercise facilitates individuals’ identification, evaluation, and their efforts to make meaning of critical life events that produce insights, reconstruct professional values, and inform future actions.

This first step requires individuals to answer: What do I stand for as a professional? (The “why” of my beliefs and behavior.)

Step 2: Team reflection: The next phase is to share individual lifelines with others in paired discussions. Sharing individual lifelines with each other can help individuals understand their co-workers and see common ground to further strengthen relationships. Then, as part of a functional or section team activity, leaders can facilitate team-based discussions and have participants answer: What does our team stand for as professionals of our organization? And what are our team’s guiding principles? The principles and values that clearly define who the team is guide the team’s approach as professionals at the organization. The stories in each individual’s personal and professional life helped to shape these values.

The team’s next task is to define its winning proposition. Members need to be able to explain their rationale for a winning proposition that makes sense strategically and resonates emotionally. The vision for their business must serve as a unifying goal to engage others’ hearts and minds. Their theory of success or strategy to achieve this vision should be expressed as a winning proposition that clearly and simply defines the few things the organization will do better or differently than its competitors in order to win. Team members have to answer: What is our team’s vision, and how will we win?

Step 3: Organizational reflection: A value can be defined as a deeply held belief about what’s important that’s consistently acted upon over time. These are the elements of an organization’s culture. Each team needs to identify key top values — no more than five — and related behaviors that are most important to achieve the vision and strategy by answering: What do we stand for as our organization?

In this final state the more specific team members can be about the nature of these values and the behaviors associated with them, the better. These top values and related behaviors form the foundation of the organization’s target culture and serve as a common bond and a source of motivation and commitment. This critical final stage of team activity also helps if teams try to respond to the following question:

  • What are the key values and behaviors that define our organization’s culture to others and will drive success?
    • What are three things about our organization that are important to us?
    • What do we want the organization to be remembered or appreciated for?
    • Why is this important?

Each team can share with the top of the organization what they come up with. The top of the organization can further shape and finalize the values statement as a final product that can be shared both internally and externally.

A truly healthy organization involves every employee at every level and department, and is infused in an organization’s culture and reflected in its daily operations. A good organizational value statement helps an audience understand where a company comes from in terms of values and what they can expect. It also links each individual’s values to the overall organizational strategy and makes it clear what behaviors they can expect from each other across levels of the organization.

Yoshie Tomozumi Nakamura is director of organizational learning and research at Columbia Business School Executive Education. Michael Malefakis is associate dean of Columbia Business School Executive Education. To comment, email