Recently, a talented fine art painter and wife of a former Gliffen Designs employee, asked us some questions about the organizational structure at Gliffen Designs for a report she was doing for her “Managing Dynamic Organizations” course. Being the transparent group that we are, we decided to share her report with you.
Diagnosing Organizational Culture
For this assignment I chose to look at Gliffen Designs, a web design, graphics design, digital marketing and application development company based out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming with a new location here in Austin, Texas. I chose this company first off because I have grown close to many of the employees over the past year, my current fiancé included (though he just recently left in February to work with a local startup) and I feel I have somewhat of and grasp as an outsider looking in to the culture established at Gliffen. The company operates with a pretty small staff, fluctuating from five to seven employees. I chose to interview the owner and manager, AJ, my fiancé, Tres, who previously worked there as a computer programmer, and the senior graphic designer Heather.
I would like to start out by going through my interview with Heather who has worked with Gliffen for six years now. When asked what best captures what it means to be a member at Gliffen she responded that it was “like a family,” and that “[they] genuinely want to invite people into [their] fold that have the drive to be creative and to help others achieve their professional and personal goals.” In regards to their clients she feels that the company’s standard is when the clients achieve success, so does Gliffen. She emphasized “we” instead of “I” in her response expressing that the company really works as a unified unit.
My next respondent, Tres, who worked with Gliffen for about two and a half years and aided in opening the company’s Austin branch, regarded his experience those two years before leaving the company in February. The story Tres chose to tell was about his first Monday morning meeting. He shared that the Monday morning meetings at Gliffen outline project management for the week and are considered sacred in the culture at Gliffen. This meeting included laughing and telling stories about clients, but also was a discussion of programming techniques and new wordpress plugins. Tres explains that in these meetings he felt “a very real and powerful sense of companionship and teamwork.” Tres continued by saying, “at the end of the meeting, our owner said ‘alright guys, blue team go’ and for whatever reason I felt more compelled than ever to work on behalf of the company other than myself.” In Chatman and Cha’s review, Leading by Leveraging Culture, they explain that a strong culture enhances performance in two ways, the first being that a strong culture can “improve performance by energizing employees – appealing to their higher ideals and values and rallying them around a set of meaningful, unified goals.”1 Tres’ story falls in line with this performance expectation and embodies a culture of comradery that he explained continued throughout his time at Gliffen.
My interview with AJ is interesting because he is the owner of the company; the manager of the Gliffen team, and also the most knowledgeable programmer, which often times yields him to being a teacher as well. In my interview with AJ he spoke of “strong team bonds to one another” as well as an attitude where they “help each other in everything.” AJ also shared that the company has a “think tank” meeting every other week that allows people to come in and contribute ideas they have for the company moving forward. His answers to my questions ring clear that the culture at Gliffen is founded on teamwork and unity just as mentioned above, and these are apparent shared values among its employees. From The three interviews I gave there was an overwhelming since of culture at Gliffen that exists quite possibly without the employees realizing it. In Clayton Christensen’s article, “What Is an Organization’s Culture?,” He refers to MIT’s Edgar Schein who is considered one of the world’s top scholars regarding organizational culture. Christensen writes that “Schein defines culture as a learned result of a group experience, he asserts that culture is found where there is a definable group with a significant history of togetherness.”2 It is quite easy to see that Gliffen’s culture is founded in the togetherness of its employees.
The comradery of each team member goes beyond the workplace as well which I believe enlivens the working experience in turn. I asked each person in this study about the traditions and rituals that they felt represented the values of the company. One such tradition, which each person regarded in their interview, was the fact that they would all grab a beer together at the end of the day. Heather put it quite well saying, “ It’s not so much the drinking aspect, as it’s the casual socializing time that is valued,” continuing saying “having the social time together as a team is important too.” AJ respected the socializing after work as an opportunity to get to know one another on a deeper level, enhancing work life and togetherness.
Chatman and Cha define culture as “a system of shared values (defining what is important) and norms (defining appropriate attitudes and behaviors).”3 This is similar to Schein’s definition above in that its core relies on shared values. The three participants I interviewed, unbeknownst to each other, all shared stories of the comradery they experience at Gliffen. The culture can be expressed using many words but for the sake of this I will call it a culture of teamwork founded in strong social ties with one another.
To further explore the culture at Gliffen it is important to see where it lies within the 7-S model. In other words it is important to see where the culture, or shared values, of the company tie in to the strategy, structure, systems, staffing, skills, and style. Briefly going through these, when asked about how the strategy at Gliffen ties into the culture, Tres responded quite well in saying that the culture keeps the team unified and allows them to easily meet client’s needs while staying within a budget and timeliness schedule. When looking at the response from each team member it seemed to be clear that the company maintains a competitive advantage by focusing on clients needs but also being able to work quickly to fulfill those needs. Gliffen operates under a functional structure where each team member shares their own development in team meetings or specifically to AJ. Final decisions are up to AJ, however every person is involved in the decision process prior to this, which again ties into the culture of teamwork. The system that Gliffen uses to manage employees was pretty clearly expressed in my interview with AJ. He shared that the behaviors that get rewarded are based on a high level of work and a high percentage billable, which ties into the strategy of fulfilling client’s needs while maintaining economic integrity. As far as staffing is concerned it is clear that employees are hired based on skill of course, but also their ability to work with the Gliffen team, maintaining unity as the goal in hiring. The skills and style clue us back to the strategy, structure, and systems employed at Gliffen which are based in the quality work they pride themselves in and the unified style in which they get things done.
When going through the 7-S model it is clear that the culture at Gliffen is in line with the company’s values and goals. There is a strong sense of mutual respect in each of the team members at Gliffen, which lends the company to achieving its goals fluidly through this culture of teamwork. The culture is further strengthened by the social interactions the employees share after work and in their various team meetings throughout the week. This culture of teamwork also allows for a warm welcome to clients and the highest possible quality of work that is shared and discussed within the team. Christensen’s article fits quite well into the future implications of Gliffen’s culture in the following excerpt: “Initially the founder of the organization usually has personal opinions such as, ‘This is better than that,’ or ‘This way of doing it is better than that way of doing it,’ and so on. However the employees in the organization must collectively experience for themselves the validity of this problem-solving methodology and of criteria for decision-making.”4 Gliffen’s culture of teamwork must continuously allow for the input of new and old and employees of different ranges, and if it maintains this openness to new ideas, the culture should continue to flourish while also instilling the values of the company in its employees unbeknownst to them. Chatman and Cha mirror this outlook when they discuss leading innovation within a company. They share that innovation within a company is promoted “by creating a shared belief that team members are safe to take interpersonal risks. When employees feel psychologically safe, they engage in learning behavior—they ask questions, seek feedback, experiment, reflect on results and discuss errors or unexpected outcomes openly.”5 Mirroring my last statement, with this in mind, I believe that Gliffen will continue to flourish with its culture of teamwork as long as that culture is nurtured and maintained as the company continues to grow.
1. Chatman, J. and Cha, S. (2003) Leading by Leveraging Culture, 21.
2. Christensen, C. and Shu, K. (1999) “What is an Organization’s Culture?,” 2.
3. Chatman, J. and Cha, S. (2003) Leading by Leveraging Culture, 21.
4. Christensen, C. and Shu, K. (1999) “What is an Organization’s Culture?,” 3.
5. Chatman, J. and Cha, S. (2003) Leading by Leveraging Culture, 25.
We wanted to thank Lida Steves for her analysis of our culture. It’s great to know what areas we are doing well on. Speaking of which, if you haven’t had a chance, check out Lida’s website. Her focus on design and form is fantastic and it is our understanding that you can commission artwork from her if specific animals, patterns, forms or symbols appeal to you. Check out the one called “Desire Lines” Oil on Canvas, 2013.