I think Matthew Arnold nailed the definition of culture in his 1868 essay, Culture and Anarchy:
“Culture is then properly described . . . as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection. It moves by the force, not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good.”
Arnold’s work eventually fell out of favor because he had no practical ideas about how to attain a perfect culture. Here’s mine:
First, acknowledge that there is rarely a single culture to define anymore. Instead, there are an infinite variety of micro-cultures. Each athletic department has many teams with many micro-cultures. Each political party is a micro-culture. Each person with a Twitter feed has a personal micro-culture. We can argue whether or not this is a good thing, but we can’t deny that it’s happening.
Second, realize that each micro-culture has a leader that drives the culture forward, and that leader has answered the question, “What is the change I’m trying to make?” There is no culture if there is no clearly defined change you’re trying to make. If the only change you’re trying to make is to improve your winning percentage, or increase your market share, or increase enrollment, at best there is a weak culture–there’s only “success.”
Third, recruit people who are excited about the change you’re trying to make. People who are excited about the change will tell their friends, and the culture will get stronger.
Occupy Wall Street fizzled out because its leaders were unclear about the change they were trying to make. Starbucks succeeded because Howard Schulz was clear about his change: transform Maxwell House-drinkers into people who appreciate quality coffee.
Define the change you’re trying to make and you’ll define your perfect culture.