Designing a healthy culture

Kenning’s 3D Culture Process: Design Phase

In the first installment of this three-part series of articles describing Kenning’s 3D Culture Process, we argued that organization culture “happens,” whether leaders want it to happen or not.

To help our clients get smarter and more intentional about their cultures, we’ve developed a proprietary methodology called 3D Culture. It’s a robust yet efficient 3-step process (Diagnose, Design, and Develop) for evaluating the current state of a client’s culture and prescribing a set of actions, as necessary, aimed at (re)building a healthy culture while ensuring optimal integration with the organization’s vision, mission, and strategy.



This article focuses on the Design Phase of the 3D Culture process, but will refer back to the Diagnostic Phase as well, both to refresh the memory of readers who have considered our earlier article and to introduce new readers to the concept. A third article will follow, focusing on the Development Phase.

Relative to the topic of culture and intentionality, the critical issue for leaders to consider is to what degree they:

  1. Choose to actively define and shape their organization’s culture from the top down
  2. Elect to encourage culture to grow organically as a bottom-up process
  3. Seek a combination approach where top-down guidance meets bottom-up forces, or
  4. Pursue, as necessary, an active culture change strategy and process where (1) and (3) emerge as the primary options.

Below, we take up more directly the question of intentionality where culture is concerned and make the case that culture can in fact be “designed” or at the very least actively cultivated, even when an organization’s culture has grown organically, without a specific top-down process or outcome in mind.

Designing culture?

Any capable management or leadership consultant can assess an organization with the objective of providing a set of comprehensive recommendations to address the gap between where leaders and/or employees want to be and where their organizations actually are vis à vis culture. In fact, however, a significant divide exists between making “generic” recommendations that could virtually be applied to any organization (the consulting equivalent of telling clients to “eat your vegetables”) and customizing specific recommendations that also fundamentally fit the form, purpose and style – a better description might be the “gestalt” – of an organization. Once we enter into the realm of gestalt we are engaging something intangible but real, and something far more difficult to capture than a set of sound management principles that can be boiled down into any number of familiar frameworks.

To illustrate the varieties of culture that Kenning engages with and helps to shape, consider the following client examples, each of which required a qualitatively different approach to the question of cultural diagnosis and design:

  • A creative organization with a high concentration of artists, storytellers, and abstract thinkers who have a difficult time planning for and executing their exciting creative visions
  • A high-tech company with a large proportion of brilliant engineers who have built an organization capable of solving the world’s most vexing technical problems but are challenged by interpersonal conflicts that their technical genius is not well equipped to handle
  • A health care organization that measures success not in terms of a P&L but the quality of patient care, yet faces significant financial pressures and substantial tension between the business and provider sides of the organization.

In each of these examples, Kenning pursued a very similar diagnostic process to determine the symptoms and root causes of whatever cultural dysfunction might exist, but our design recommendations sought to realize the desired gestalt of these organizations, helping them to achieve their full potential relative to both culture and performance.

As we get to know our clients and delve into the question of culture, we are typically curious about things like:

  • How are people evaluated and rewarded?
  • How do people learn and grow?
  • How does communication typically happen?
  • How are decisions made?
  • How are people organized to perform their jobs?
  • Does the organization value “right” answers or “better” answers?
  • What is the attitude and approach toward hierarchy and reporting relationships?
  • What are the espoused and lived values?
  • What is the attitude and approach towards meetings?

Once we get smarter about the answers to these questions, all of which inform the Diagnostic Phase of our 3D culture work, we become better prepared to enter into the Design Phase, described more fully in the following case study.

A culture design case study

We recently engaged with the leadership of the largest and most financially successful practice within a global professional services firm. In our initial conversations, leadership described an organization that had potentially stagnated away from being the “place to be” within the company, as many of the most talented new members were electing to join other orgs perceived to be more innovative in their offerings and more progressive in their management style. On the other end of the talent spectrum, org leadership expressed concern about its ability to retain, inspire, and advance its most accomplished rising leaders, and especially rising leaders from traditionally underrepresented groups, most prominently including women.

Following Kenning’s Culture Diagnostic Phase, which included gathering data inputs from 1-1 interviews, focus groups, and a comprehensive survey, our team made several high-level recommendations to leadership, which responded both to the initial presenting problems as well as to the more specific findings of the diagnostic. These recommendations identified a set of concrete actions that cohered with the org’s desired gestalt and values, including:

  • Growing and amplifying inspirational leadership
  • Supporting far more actively and intentionally women and minorities, especially relative to the process of formal advancement
  • Increasing the amount of original, creative problem solving
  • Enhancing the org’s ability to win the war for talent over other orgs internally and other competitors externally.

Twelve months after Kenning’s culture recommendations were implemented, the org announced the most women in its history were promoted to senior positions. A follow-up culture diagnostic survey revealed that several of the org’s internal health indicators had improved by as much as 25%.

Additional Kenning recommendations included a variety of ways for the org to present a more compelling value proposition for incoming team members as well as provide a far more engaged experience on behalf of its emerging leaders – leaders essential to retain and grow because they represented the lifeblood of the org going forward.

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To learn more about Kenning’s 3D Culture Process, please contact Daryl Ogden.