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US Ranger Bear cookie jar, circa 1960s. Only I can choose “not” to eat that extra cookie.

I’ve always liked Smokey the Bear Ads. You know the ones where he said, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” He made it so personal. He made me responsible. He put me “in-charge.” I controlled the destiny of the forest around me. I believe the same can be said about culture. While culture may rest in you, you by yourself are not a culture.

Let me explain.

Culture is one of the more nebulous words in our vocabulary. Whether discussing the culture of a country, pop culture, Culture Club, or the culture of a company – not only do people have different conceptual differences in what culture is, they have vastly different views on what kind of culture they prefer. Then comes the discussion on what kind of actions (positive or negative actions) drive cultural change. And do we even mention sub-cultures?

Webster defines culture as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization. The more I think about culture the more I am coming to believe that culture consists of thousands of daily interactions that come in all sizes and emotions.

In math terms, it is the summation of all the times people interact with each other. As I said earlier, a single person is not a culture. I am not even sure two people make a culture. Rather it is the collision of each of us into each other that creates a fragrance that defines our culture. However, a single person, or two, can interact enough with others to change the fragrance (for good or bad) because a little yeast can work its way through the whole batch. That makes changing culture hard – hard because you cannot control thousands of daily human interactions.

However, you can control foundational structure – if you take the time to figure out the cornerstones. Once you figure them out, you can rock the building (so to speak). It could be as simple as how a meeting is structured. How meetings are run says a lot about your culture – planning, trust, what is important and what isn’t. It is simple things that create hundreds of interactions a week that shape your culture.

Every company has a culture. There are great parts of the culture. There are parts of the culture that must evolve. There are parts of culture yet to be defined. We are each part of a culture – we are each adding or subtracting to the interactions – we are each improving the culture or subtracting from it. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to explore foundational structures that control culture, and where teams can come together to shift culture.

It might be trite, but just like a forest fire can start with one, a culture shift starts with each individual. All your interactions in a day add up to your participation in a culture, which is part of the definition of the culture. Every where you go, there you are! Think about it.

As we explore the topic of culture I’d love to hear ways you have seen or think culture can be shifted. What’s worked? What didn’t? Why?

Be intentional!