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7 Elements of Company Culture That Ensure Your Business Keeps Improving Are you pushing your company into the future or letting it fall behind the times?

By Martin Zwilling

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Many startups and entrepreneurs I advise still default to growing their business via the traditional top-down, order-taking culture. I'm convinced you can't stay competitive that way with today's customers and employees. It's time to insist that the people closest to the customer and the markets learn and make the decisions.

I saw strong validation for this approach in a new book, Sense & Respond, by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. They argue that successful organizations spend more time building and maintaining a leaning culture of listening to customers, enabling their team to make decisions, and creating new products continuously. Here are seven key elements of the culture we both espouse:

1. Accept that you don't know all the answers.

Anything you or your team knows about the market today may change tomorrow. Don't demand or assume immediate and certain answers. Foster a culture of constant dialog with customers, experimentation and multiple pivots required to stay competitive and responsive.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

2. Give the team permission to fail.

Experiments are how we learn, but experiments, by nature, fail frequently. If failure is stigmatized, teams will take fewer risks and your business will fall behind. Practice blameless post-mortems to honestly examine what went well and what should be discontinued.

3. Foster self-direction.

If your mission is clear, and the organization is aligned around it, self-direction takes root and delivers superior solutions. Team members will want to take personal responsibility for quality, creativity, collaboration and learning. You just provide the environment and support for success.

Related: Habits of the World's Wealthiest People (Infographic)

4. Promote honesty.

Never shoot the messenger -- even if you don't like what they have to say -- and don't forget to listen carefully to the total message before responding. Ask questions without undue emotion, and always focus on the positive or possible solutions. No one learns from a lack of communication or misrepresentation of data.

5. Practice a bias toward action.

Constant debates and re-analyses of data are the enemy in a fast-moving and competitive marketplace. A thriving process culture today assumes that you will be making many small decisions, seeking feedback and evaluating evidence, but always moving forward.

Related: 11 Habits of Truly Happy People

6. Define customer value as the only path to business value.

Customer empathy is required today to maintain a strong market position in the face of global competition. Everyone, from the CEO to call-center representatives, must have a sense of what your customers are trying to achieve, what's getting in their way and how you can help them.

7. Build a team culture of collaboration, diversity and trust.

The best teams are smaller, diverse and work in short, iterative cycles. There is no time for lengthy, sequential work with hand-offs between specialists. Now, you need people who have different points of view but trust each other due to social ties to collaborate quickly and create positive resullts.

With these culture elements, organizations today are emerging and thriving based on their improved capacity to sense and respond instantly to customer and employee behaviors. The alternative is another Eastman Kodak, which failed to keep up with the transition from film to digital cameras, or another Blockbuster Video, overrun by Netflix and streaming videos on the internet.

More successful examples include Facebook, which continues to change and lead today, despite assaults from Twitter, Instagram and others; and Tesla Motors, still leading the electric car market despite repeated initiatives from the major auto manufacturers and other upstarts. We will soon see if they can hold that lead in the coming era of totally autonomous vehicles.

These winners, and almost every successful new startup, have successfully established a learning culture that customers and employees can appreciate. But, a cultural transformation doesn't happen by default; it must be led, even if employees and customers are ready for the change.

Martin Zwilling

Veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and Angel investor.

Martin Zwilling is the founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners. The author of Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur? and Attracting an Angel, he writes a daily blog for entrepreneurs and dispenses advice on the subject of startups.

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