How to read company culture (unknown knowns)

Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns. But he neglected to mention Unknown Knowns. Geopolitics isn’t concerned with things that you didn’t know you knew.

I am. And so is the reading of company culture.

Defining a brand is an act of realisation.

I help my clients realise what they are all about. And when we’re done, the result is something that they feel like they knew all along. They just didn’t know that they knew beforehand.

They didn’t get us.

The best b2b and service brands are a sincere reflection of the company culture behind them. So an important skill for any brand consultant is an ability to read the culture of his or her clients. In fact it might be the single most important skill. The most common complaint I’ve heard about brand consultants is that, “they didn’t get us”.

Conversely, the highest form of praise is when a client tells you that you were the first outsider that really did get them.

When a brand consultant doesn’t get you, it’s a safe bet that you’ll end up feeling like your brand strategy or your brand identity was done “to” you, not with you or for you. You’ll feel like you let them sell you something that didn’t feel comfortable because “they were the experts”.

It’s tricky.

The scenic route to culture and values

A consultant is brought in, partly, to offer an outside perspective. But no one knows company culture better than the people who are part of it.

Then again, culture is hard to pin down. It resists definition. People have a feel for it, but not the words.

It’s tricky, but the trick is not to attack culture head on. The trick is to get people to talk about culture without asking them about it. This is one reason why I tend to favour one-to-one interviews over workshops. An extended conversation allows you to take the scenic route to hard-to-reach destinations such as company culture and values. It allows you to keep culture in your peripheral vision. I’ve found that culture is hard to see when you try to look directly at it.

Your outside perspective becomes valuable when you’ve had several of these oblique conversations with a representative sample of staff and clients. You can see the patterns. You can see the dots that need joining. And joining the dots is the act of realisation. It’s the realisation of unknown knowns. Knowledge that was largely subconscious and distributed across the organisation has been rendered into something coherent and useful.

That’s us!

The picture revealed when you joins the dots is blindingly obvious, but only in hindsight. It wasn’t at all obvious beforehand. And that is one of the acid tests of a genuine insight.

“That’s us!”, said with excitement and relief, is the desired response when you tell your client what they knew but didn’t know they knew about themselves.


Joining the dots of company culture