Seeing Culture

I have never been that interested in Culture. Like the law, politics and economics, culture was something I never needed to learn about. My roles were delivery focused which is a short term activity. As an Agile Coach, my goal is also the long term improvement of the organisation within my scope.

Culture is important to the long term health of an organisation. Peter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It also eats any attempt to improve an organisation. Some aspects of a change initiative will align with the culture and will take root. Aspects of the change initiative that do not align with the culture will be chewed up and spat out.

The problem with Culture is that it is invisible. Whenever you join a group you might notice that some of their behaviour is weird or strange. If you do not adapt to the culture, you will be rejected and it will spit you out. In order to survive in the group you start copying the behaviour. Your accent changes so that you say certain words in the way that dominant individuals in the group say them. After a while you don’t notice the differences anymore because you have been assimilated into the culture. This is where ethnography and anthropology comes into play, professionals skilled at such matters can “see” the culture without becoming assimilated into it, and record it in ways that others can see it. Unfortunately I’m not a professional ethnographer or anthropologist. Most of us do not record our initial observations. Inspired by the work of Dave Snowden, I’ve been applying a variant of Cynefin/sense maker/distributed ethnography whereby I record the things that other people and myself note as “weird or strange” behaviour. Each “weird” example has a corresponding normal behaviour. (If you have other examples, please leave them as comments.)

To help me structure my thoughts, I adopted Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions as a model (Olaf) to classify the observations. I used “break the model”, from Feature Injection, to apply the behaviour examples to the Hofstede’s model. So far there are a few hypotheses. These are:

1. Most important. Uncertainty avoidance is better understood as “Personal risk appetite” with “risk aversion” and one end of the scale and “risk managed” at the other. “Risk averse” means that individuals ignore risk or attempt to put it on others. “Risk managed” means that individuals seek to place risk in the best place for it to managed for the sake of the organisation.

2. “Risk Appetite” and “Power distance index” are heavily correlated, quite probably causally linked. Many of the examples could easily have fit in both dimensions. They seem to be the most important dimensions.

3. Most risk averse organisations have no mechanism to manage risk. Their culture prevents it.

4. Organisations need a healthy balance of culture, with the ability to manage risk. Risk managed cultures can adopt a risk averse approach. Risk Averse cultures will probably need an exogenous event to shock them into risk managed. It is likely that the shock will result in a dangerous “gambling” culture rather than a risk managed one.

I am now using the examples in the Hoftstede model form hypotheses about cultures. In other words, it helps me to see culture.

The next step is to help managers and leaders to see using the model so that they can act on the culture.

Below is the model (Olaf)…

Behaviour, Symbols and Process

<This is a horrible table. I will fix it when I do not have to do my chores>

Dimension Traditional Legacy Innovation Org
Power distance index Managers have offices. Managers sit with the team.
Introductions are managed through the hierarchy. Employees talk to whoever they need to do a job. Management is kept informed.
Frequent reference to grade levels during conversations. Frequent reference to capability and experience.
Deference to power. Deference to experience.
Decisions pushed up the hierarchy.(Inward looking approach) Decisions pushed to those closest to the customer.(Outward looking approach)
GeneralistsAs people without detail are making decisions, Phrases such as “Use Smaller Words” or “That’s sounds academic” are used. Generalising ExpertsTendency to inadvertently use technical terms that reflect their expertise

( Pivot, Hypothesis )

Bigger slower teams. Smaller faster teams.
Maintain status quo. Challenge status quo.
Titles reflect status. Titles reflect skill sets.
Manager review 360 reviews
“Because I say so” “Lets discuss that”
Individualism ( vs Collectivism ) N/A N/A
Uncertainty Avoidance Uncertainty resolved by deferring to expert (higher authority). Uncertainty resolved through hypothesis testing.
Slow build of “Robust” Solutions.(Plan Driven) Fast build of Resilient Solutions.(Responsive)
Outcomes are knowablee.g. Feature XYZ Outcomes are emergente.g. Reduce Churn.
Outcomes are binary (Success/Fail)e.g. Build Feature XYZ Outcomes are analogue(Scale)

e.g. Reduce Churn

Experts decide. Multiple Hypotheses tested in the market.
Risk Aversion to change. Rapid change.
Cost reduction. Customer value creation.
Powerpoint presentations. White board discussions.
Project Plan. Stickies on the wall.
Reliable with basics. Learning junkies
Architecture / Business Centric. Customer Centric.
Assumption. A classic risk avoidance mechanism. Hypothesis. A risk engagement mechanism.
“Vendor assumes risk” Risk managed by most appropriate resource.
Solution Focus Problem and Market Focus.
Managers regarded as controllers and masters Managers regarded as resources by their teams.
Opaque process. Only understood by the initiated. Transparency
Do the right thing for yourself regardless of cost to company. Do the right thing for company regardless of cost to self.
Internal Reputation. External Reputation. “Portfolio”
Punishment for Failure ·      Forgiveness for non negligent failure·      Learning expected from Failure (Retrospective culture)

·      Punishment for negligent failure

Get your boss to sign off and absolve you of blame. Taking responsibility and ownership of your actions.
“None of your business” “We need everyone to identify risks.”
Hate not knowing a valuable tool so devalue the tool. Delight in finding new tools and knowing you have a set of tools to learn. (Like the anticipation associated with Christmas).
Cannot delay gratification of resolving uncertainty. Understand value of delaying gratification of resolving uncertainty.
“Nothing to learn”. Huge backlog of things to learn.
Work is Perfect Work is good enough
People are good enough People aspire to perfection
Follow a script. Self Determination
Low cognitive load High cognitive load
Theory lead Praxis based
We can’t do that How can we do that?
Statement Discussion
Masculinity ( vs Feminimity ) ** Aggressive Passive
Safe Innovative
Control Responsibility
Long Term Orientation ( vs Short Term ) N/A N/A
Indulgence Versus Restraint Cost focus Value focus


About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

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