Have you heard the story of the three goldfish?

It was originally told in a commencement speech delivered by David Foster Wallace in 2005 at Kenyon College, later published as an essay titled ‘This Is Water’. It quickly became one of his most read pieces of work.

The story goes:

‘There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”’

Culture is a hot topic. You’ve probably heard quotes like “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and “culture is your competitive advantage”.

You might have even used phrases like:

• I love/hate the culture here.
• That person doesn’t really get our culture.
• They are a good/bad culture fit.
• We need to work on our culture.
• The culture isn’t what it used to be.

But what is culture…really?

Making sense of culture can feel like a goldfish trying to make sense of water. We spend our lives immersed in it we can remain mostly unaware of its presence or impact.

Last year in my research project with McCrindle we asked 1,002 Australian managers if they could define culture. Ninety-seven per cent told us they could.

Of course, our next question was ‘how do you define it?’

People struggled. It wasn’t that the answers they gave were necessarily wrong, rather, they struggled to give a consistent answer.

One in ten respondents described culture as:

‘Organisational culture is the collection of values, expectations, and practices that guide and inform the actions of all team members.’

It was interesting that they could all articulate it this way. As it turns out if you google ‘define organisational and team culture’ this is the first answer you’ll get.

For many, rather than defining what culture is, they described the evidence of what they believed to be healthy culture using words such as ‘positive’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘valuing of individuals’.

It led me to this conclusion:

‘Culture is easy to describe but hard to define’

If you want to start a heated debate, ask people to define culture. What makes defining culture so challenging is that right now a universal understanding of culture just doesn’t exist. However, our biggest threat is that we can spend more time trying to define culture than we do applying it.

I would suggest that ‘what is the right definition of culture?’ is the wrong question. And the more helpful question is, ‘What do I need to know to act on culture?’

In this next short series, we’re going to look at four key elements to help us better understand what culture is so we can know what we can do about it.

Here’s question to reflect on this week:
“What elements do I believe contribute to our organisational or team culture?”