Using A Cultural Lens To Make Improvements

Zain Ahmed is senior director of Level 3 Communications in Washington, D.C. and a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2017.

It’s common for businesses to talk about their culture, but it’s often difficult to define what that is. After all, culture is essentially a set of unspoken rules that govern behavior. However, they must be recognized in order for strategy to succeed. The popular phrase coined by Peter Drucker sums it all, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Using a “cultural lens” to assess an organization’s culture is important for every company in every industry ranging from small restaurants to large corporations. As I learned more about this lens in Organizational Behavior, I began to pay more attention to my company’s culture. More specifically, I began to think about how we can enhance our culture to make positive changes in our organization.

As I reflected on our culture, I had an “aha” moment. In sales, people are rewarded for their successes. Yet when there are missteps, they are frowned upon and not discussed. My organization isn’t immune from this tendency – it’s pretty common across all types of sales groups. I wondered why we couldn’t try something different. What if we made learning from those missteps part of our culture? That led to the start of a pilot project in my organization. We’re still conducting experiments, but so far the results have been very positive. We are learning a lot about what is working and what we need to change.

The first step

In order to try to affect any change, I knew I needed to talk to my team and get their feedback. In addition to putting specific times on my schedule every week to talk to team members, I also asked them to share their thoughts on the organization’s culture at an off-site meeting. That’s when I floated my idea: Rather than telling employees what they have to do to improve, we could reflect on wins and losses as a team to gain insights. Group buy-in was critical so I asked for volunteers to lead this effort. As a group, we decided to pilot a “lessons learned” meeting every month to discuss one win and one loss.

Creating a safe environment

The next step was to encourage employees to share their loss stories. In other words, we wanted them to openly discuss failures. This wouldn’t happen unless we showed them that they are in a safe environment where sharing their losses is just as important as sharing their wins. At first, we talked about handing out trophies or plaques for sharing a loss story, but trophies and losses don’t really go together. Instead, we gave out gift certificates for restaurants to individuals who volunteered to share their loss stories. As for choosing what to discuss, we made sure that the loss stories came from different groups. We wanted the stories to be representative across the organization.

Reflection Questions
We also created a series of questions for reflection. These are used as guidelines as employees prepare to share their loss story. The questions include:

  • How did you perceive alignment with the customer?
  • Where was your perception misaligned?
  • What could the organization have done better?
  • Who won? Why did they win?
  • How is the customer experience with the chosen vendor?
  • Can you recover? Have you recovered? How?
  • What would you/did you change with this customer?

Learning from failure

Many companies never talk about failure because it looks bad, but we want to create a culture where we learn from failure. To do this, it’s important to have time for self-reflection and encourage sharing. So far, we’ve received very positive feedback from our pilot project. People are sharing their stories and making suggestions for how to do things differently. I’ve seen a lot of lightbulb moments for individuals who were potentially headed down the same path. For example, a recent loss story resulted in the simple realization that we need to improve communication about our price with customers. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves about losses. We just need to examine the problem and learn how to avoid it the next time. The goal is learning – and we are well on our way to creating a culture of learning.


Of course there is room for improvement in our process. This was just the pilot so we’re surveying our employees and will iterate based on their feedback. And even if something is working great today, it may not be so great six months from now. We will continue to seek insights and change the process as needed.

How have you used the cultural lens in your organization to make improvements?