culture starts with you
Testing Culture Design
Observing teams while they work on Culture Design
The testing took the form of workshops for Dotforge (pre-accelerator), Giggypop (startup) and Hyper Island (experiential learning digital school). On top of this I did an ongoing Culture Design process with Northern Quarter (Culture Design agency).

These environments were the best suited to run this kind of exercise because of the nature of their work. People at Dotforge, Giggypop and Hyper innovate and face unexpected challenges every day. I expected them to be more receptive to culture topics and to try new things for the sake of the team. The workshops were exploratory, the intention was to observe reactions to theoretical Culture Design activities and make notes on what happened.

The difference between my workshops and existing culture workshops like Culture Hacking by Culturevist (aside from £0 vs. £500 a ticket respectively) lies in who and what the experience focuses on.

Team individuals over leaders

Culture hackday from Culturevist offers "access to learn from a room of leaders [...] who have actually helped their brands develop great company cultures" (Partovi, 2016).

A Culture Design workshop does not have outside leaders and is not meant to tell participants what is best based on someone else's experience. A Culture Design workshop focuses on facilitating teams' in discovering what kind of culture suits them best. This is because I've understood that while culture is manifested in groups, each group is different and its culture starts within each individual.

Designing culture is very much like that colloquial advice some friends give me: "don't just copy an outfit! Dress for your shape!". What looks good on others will not necessarily look good on you.

Implementation over presentation

At the Culturevist event, participants pick a random aspect related to organisational culture and come up with an improvement on it, before presenting it to the group.

In a Culture Design workshop, participants work on existing aspects of their culture and during the time of the workshop develop their personal and team understanding of the subject. There is discussion and space for feedback where the team can discuss how to implement realistic changes and new ideas in their culture.
Based on my research, the following are the kinds of design culture activities I will test:

  • Being present
  • Acknowledgement of other people's emotions
  • Vulnerability
  • Empathetic listening
  • Self discovery
  • Setting values together
  • Growing common values
  • Individual needs
  • Developing empathy for other people's needs
16 august, 2015
Workshop n.1: Culture retreat attempt for my startup
When this workshop took place, Giggypop had just won Startup Weekend London two months before. This session was a very early attempt at having a culture session with my teammates from Giggypop. I had only just learned the basics of culture at Hyper Island five months before and was learning to apply the theory. Early days all around.


It went well overall but it was a very confusing experience. I didn't know the team very well and had never facilitated a session. This led to a slight initial awkwardness that we all powered through with a reflection exercise and many meals together over the weekend. It helped that the team stayed at my house so we could spend extra time together.

I did not have the experience necessary to facilitate two colleagues live and two colleagues I had never met over Skype. I still wasn't sure about which angle of culture and leadership I was interested in but I thought meeting to talk about our brand values was going to be a good idea. It was a good idea because it proved to me that the subject of culture requires study, practice and knowledge.

It was a bad idea because I felt confused most of the time as I've mentioned before. I was confused mostly because we spoke about our personal needs and then immediately tried to extrapolate those values to the product we were building. The jump felt wrong, and in later workshops trying to fit work into a culture session proved to be an actual red flag. Something that should never be done.

Trying to work on our team culture while developing the brand values and look and feel pulled my brain in two separate directions...

In terms of using the double diamond approach to Design Culture, this session was part of the "Discovery" phase of Giggypop's Culture Design journey. Thinking was divergent and invited exploration of the problems and individuals in the team.

Below is a summary of what happened, along with some observations.

Infographic Summary
Context, description, details and findings of the workshop.
november 4, 2015
Workshop n.2: Culture Design introduction
session commissioned to Northern Quarter
Dotforge is an accelerator in Manchester where I ran an introductory basic workshop on Culture Design with my colleague Dominic White from Northern Quarter Culture Agency.

We were asked to come in as many other mentors do to give a talk about a topic. We created content that followed our findings on Culture Design and had an interactive informative session with ten participants.


It was disappointing to see many of the delegates come into the room a bit tired and focused only on work. We sat in the room while the previous mentor was giving a talk and some of the attendees were on their email, working on photoshop or on a presentation. This is a good example of the startup culture - it never stops.

The good news is that because our session was the afternoon, we thought about bringing in a lot of candy, which got everyone excited and broke the ice. They seemed energized after having an improvised giant marshmallow competition. Dominic and I had nothing to do with that.

In terms of the double diamond approach, this session was more of a "Developing" phase, since we were giving participants Culture Design ideas, thought starters and initiatives ready to test in their businesses.

Infographic Summary
Context, description, details, observations and industry feedback on the workshop.
We discovered that there is little to no space for play in accelerators. I would have thought that since its a place for companies to grow there would be a focus on culture and the humans behind the ideas. The participants were blown away by the interactivity of our session saying things like "bringing sweets was genius"and "I missed having the space and time to play".

The difference between the 10 founders attitude before and after our talk was remarkable. They talked about their worries saying things like:"I feel like free willy... I feel trapped and I'm hoping to be set free". This comment came out with little prompting during the check-in from the tallest man in the room.
5 december, 2015
Hyper Island UK
Workshop n.3: Culture Design and Culture Mapping
session commissioned to Northern Quarter
After launching Northern Quarter, we were approached by Hyper Island Manchester and asked to run a culture mapping session for the whole UK team. The initiative originated at Hyper Island headquarters (Sweden) but the content of the workshop was 100% created by us.

Seeing this was a great opportunity to observe whether or not anyone can design culture, I took the role of "documentator" of what was being said while my colleagues facilitated and documented with photos. We worked on Culture Design activities and I pitched in ideas that would uncover the individual's point of view - like the Consensus game.

To fulfil the mission given to us by Hyper Island Sweden, we decided to turn two large whiteboards into existing and desired Culture Maps by splitting them into sections.

For the session I came up with an energizer called 'Hello Kitty' (name by Dominic White, intellectual property of Northern Quarter) and co-created the Consensus Game with my Northern Quarter teammates. 'Hello Kitty' makes people laugh and act silly for a while and it has been included in the Hyper Island toolbox. The Consensus Game is a way to remove ourselves from peer pressure and literally take a stand for what we believe in.
Hello Kitty energizer
As documenter I wrote the quotes and ideas I considered important on post its and decided where they would go on the maps.

Because we were discovering where the team stood in terms of emotions and mindset, this session counts as the "Discovery" phase of their Culture Design journey.

Infographic of the workshop
Context, description, details, observations and industry feedback on the workshop.
We were able to fill in the current and desired culture maps (see below), but we were not able to run through all of the Culture Design activities (RGB Index part 2 and feedback) we had planned for the day because the leader (with the agreement of the team) stopped the day's agenda and crowdsourced the next set of activities.

It seemed that when all of the thoughts and feelings were out, the leader felt he knew what was best to do.
24 JANUARY, 2016

Workshop n.4: Culture Design workshop
tailored to the needs of the team
This workshop took place five months after the first workshop, detailed above. By this time, Giggypop had already launched an MVP, processed thousands of orders, partnered with a dozen promoters and venues, run a series of sell-out events and had repeat customers.

During these 5 months, we also got accepted at Startup Next, a pre-accelerator program by Techstars. This was the last workshop I did with the purpose of testing Culture Design Activities. I felt more prepared to facilitate the conversation - which was good since one of the team members announced he was leaving the team. I did not make a slide deck, instead I summarized what we would do and turned it into a navigational document with underpinned theory.

I tried to run two new specific culture design activities (psychological safety and anxiety party) but the leader took over like in the previous workshop and prevented these two activities from happening.

This session counts as the "Definition" stage of Giggypop's Culture Design journey since in this session interpret what was discovered in the previous stage and align what is necessary in order to achieve business objectives. In this project, the definition stage will include:

Detailed Workshop infographic
Context, description, details, observations and industry feedback on the workshop.

The leader took over the workshop half way and opened up a discussion that took over the rest of the afternoon so we could not do the leadership skill development exercises. One of the team members announced he was leaving and the news were received calmly. We found out another team member had decided to take a step back from the team going forward. We talked openly about going full time or not to work at Giggypop.


Soon after this workshop I was able to have an open conversation with Alice (Giggypop's leader) about not wanting to be a co-founder and asking her honest questions about the things I did not understand. We agreed that I will be a founding member of the team once funding comes through. During the conversation she said: "I'm so glad we're able to talk about these difficult subjects just like that!". I attribute this openness to having doubts and knowing the other person means good as one of the culture pillars we have established in the last months.

Only weeks after Chris decided to leave his full time job and become co-founder with Alice. Unfortunately, Owen, Nick and Vish took a step back (at different degrees) and several different conversations were had.

What i observed is that by facilitating conversation, we unlocked our team capabilities to hold difficult discussions and bounce back to business as usual. We all showed up to demo day in London on February 16th and pitched in work to make that day special.

I started by being in charge of the brand's creative direction. However, thanks to this project, I am now also facilitating the development of our culture.

Workshop material
This was a document I created. We only referred to during the session (after learning from the Dotforge workshop that an excess of theory saturates participants). It was sent to every the team to look at in their own time.
Giggypop has designed a culture of support
Alice, founder of the company, has a growth mindset and is more open to vulnerability now than ever before. She uses tools like the Johari Window in her own time (pictured left). The rest of the team, like Chris, pictured left, are also actively working on feedback received during our session.

In August 2015 we started working on increasing our team levels of vulnerability. Today we talk openly about shame and about personal needs. We look to support each other, beyond Giggypop, because we've built a culture of friendship and support.
Northern Quarter Agency
An ongoing journey: Founded mid 2015, Northern Quarter is a Culture Design agency where we design our culture every day across three different time zones. It is a project that will live after the four of us finish our Industry Research Projects.
We were drawn to each other in 2015 and knew we wanted to work together. We said upfront that it was not because we were friends, instead we liked the diversity in thinking, background and common enthusiasm to change the world.

We did not know what to do yet, but we knew it had to be together. Instead of spending hours figuring out what to do, we had a meal together and came up with a question full of admiration and respect:

"What do YOU need?"

Not for work. What do you really need right now? Time off to be with your family? Space to write? Time to play with your new playstation? A bit of time to sleep and be with friends? We needed all of these things, and we gave each other as much time as necessary to get it.

Northern Quarter founders
Myself, Trishal Ghelani, Qing Qing Chen and Dominic White
Once we came back from our time-out, we developed the idea of helping people be happier at work. We created our business canvas, spoke to mentors like Abbi Asefaw, co-founder of The Pop Up Agency, a role model company for us. He told us we should "do this full-time" and that there is a need in the industry for "what we do".

To date the team has done over 5 workshops in London, Manchester and Shanghai. We are speaking to potential partners and we received positive feedback from the industry and the Hyper Community consistently.

Designing our behaviours and thoughts

Today that we are in three different countries, we are committed to speaking to each other on Slack, text and call over Wechat (because we found Whatsapp and Skype are not stable in China, where Qing Qing is) and hold conference calls on the phone. We never only talk about work. Our conversations overlap personal life with tasks for the week.

When we were together at Hyper Island, we came up with a system where the last person touching their nose has to start talking first. We maintain this over video calls. We reflect once a week and share with each other as much as we can. We prepare workshops over video conference calls and Slack.
We have Culture Design Wednesday where we reflect and air our thoughts and feelings. On Saturdays we talk about work, but never on Wednesdays. We find reflecting on what affected us in the last week increases our perception of each others realities.

We have been talking and working together on developing the Northern Quarter vision while many things happened in our lives. Like:

- Travelling through Spain with our family
- Skiing in Japan with our family
- Visiting family in Peru
- Moving out and in
- Doing a spiritual journey through India
- Writing our Industry Research Projects
- Preparing a workshop in Shangai, Manchester and London
- Interviewing people in London, Singapore, India and China

We supported each other through these experiences because we know they have a holistic effect on us as people and this in turn affects the work we do and how we react to things at work.

When we flew in on December 2015, we had a quite important conflict where a team member was overwhelmed by emotion and it came across as having doubts on the Northern Quarter project. We managed it the same way we did the first time we were stuck and did not know what to work on.

Managing stress at Northern Quarter

1. Have a meal together
2. Stay in the same location until everyone has said how they feel
3. Embrace silence - silence is not a "bad thing"
4. Take a short time-out if an overwhelming emotion takes over you. Don't leave alone, take someone from the team with you.
5. Active listening:
double-check you understand what is being said
6. Empathetic listening:
double-check what individual needs are ("what do YOU need?")
7. Have a closing discussion about what just happened and make sure everyone has said everything they have in their minds.

We allow emotions. Trish always reminds us that it's ok to feel them and that we should not stop ourselves from having them. From insecurity all the way through to fear, we name and express what we are feeling and thinking - before these manifest in actions. We have normalised this practice, however personally and six months later, it still feels a little bit scary to voice out concerns I'm not used to sharing.

[This] happened to me last week... to be very honest guys, I'm very sad about it...
Wow. We know the feeling... what do you need from us this week to support you?
I feel guilty and self conscious if I ask you guys to show up on time to a meeting.
We need you to ask us what you need. Don't feel anything secretly.
I feel that what I did was not good enough.
About that, I meant to tell you that what you did was actually fan-tastic.
Final thoughts on testing
Being underprepared is paid with confusion
The worse thing that can happen when being unprepared for a workshop (either because of a facilitation skill or lack of knowledge) seems to be feeling confused, confusing others and creating a sense of 'lack of direction'.

Eating together builds bonds
Every meal we had together as a team (be it with Northern Quarter and Giggypop) brought conversations that otherwise we would not have space to share. Not even during a reflection session.

Startup accelerators are full of emotion and needs
With my personal experience having attended Startupnext (pre accelerator) with Giggypop and having facilitated Dotforge (accelerator), there is a clear sense of emotional detachment and wishing to appear perfect. It is part of the job since we are trying to impress investors... but this creates an emotional culture of indifference.

Emotions are not intertwined with the topics discussed and the emphasis is placed completely on making that first round of funding - no matter what. What if we lose our co-founders and founding members on the way? That should matter too.

Too much theory won't sink in
At Dotforge I used a preset set of slides and was not sure who would attend the workshop. I was told it could be between 5 and 20 people since the client was a co-working space and people attend conferences based on whether or not they are busy.

Northern Quarter Agency and I thought it would be a good call to prepare a sort of Culture Design "101" presentation. In doing this we found ourselves sharing more theory than could be absorbed in the time we had. The participants were engaged and made notes but asked for our slides and a "reading list".

Having learnt from this experience, the last workshop done with Giggypop was fully immersive and experiential and the theory was sent by email together with a description of what we were going to do. The trick seems to be having a 20 second overview explanation of the theory and substantial material available if the individual is curious after the session.

Disarm the leader
50% of leaders took over the workshop. It is hard for leaders to take on a passive role since they seem to be constantly evaluating whether or not what is happening is beneficial

To prevent this from happening, announce that during a Culture Design workshop the leader is not allowed to use his power of telling others what to do - at all. Especially if what they want to do involves stopping the workshop. It would be interesting to ask leaders to record why and when they feel like they know what would be a better activity for their team. During the second Giggypop session and during Hyper Island session both leaders took over after doing self discovery and value setting activities. When asked about it, Giggypop's leader commented that in reflection, she would have rather not done that.

It seemed that when all of the thoughts and feelings were out, the leader felt he knew what was best to do.
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