Organizational culture is one of the most important and yet misunderstood aspects in business today. Culture has profound impact on a business organization's performance. For example, a Harvard Business School study documented the significant impact of culture on performance. Heskett and Kotter documented the dramatic differences between companies with good cultures vs those with poor cultures on key performance measures. For example, the companies with good cultures achieved 756% growth in net income during the same time period that companies with poor performing culture saw just 1% net income growth.
Given the importance of culture on performance, one would assume that those of us in business would have an excellent understanding of what culture is. While this seems obvious, it is not the case. Most of us have an incomplete understanding of organizational culture. We assume that culture is:
- The artifacts which can be seen in the organization. These artifacts include the behaviors which can be seen. It also includes how communication is delivered, the workplace is organized as well as how practices and processes deployed. While declaration is given that those artifacts are the culture, less consideration is given as to why those artifacts occur. Said differently, identifying what the cultural artifacts are is useful, however, meaningful change can occur only after determining why that culture occurs.
- The values of the organization. It is common practice for executives who seek to change or improve their organization’s culture to use exercises to develop the exact wording for the desired values and principles of the organization. The assumption is that by identifying and claiming these new values that they will now occur in the culture. While this is a popular approach to culture change, it seldom works out for any length of time.
So, the state of play is that we have strong evidence that culture has significant impact on an organization’s performance, yet we do not have a good understanding of what or why a culture is or how to improve it. This is startling given that we have spent most of our lives in some form of organization, each of which had unique cultures. Think about it, most of us went to kindergarten or preschool before we were age six and have been in various organizations ever since. Each of these organizations had distinct cultures which impacted our experience, yet we do not have a good understanding of organizational cultures. This is because the culture of the organization was established before we arrived in that organization and functioned so much in the background that we could not see it. Chances are we felt the impacts of the culture from time to time, but never were able to see the entire culture nor understand the origins of the culture.
Who Discovered Water?
This reminds me of one of my favorite rhetorical questions that I use in helping others understand culture. The question is “who discovered water?” Think about it. We take water so much for granted that at first the question seems daft or stupid. Yet thinking provides an important clue in understanding organizational culture.
One response to this question that I like is “I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.” This response has an interesting parallel to our experience with cultures. The fish spends all its entire life in water and yet it has no concept of water. The fish begins to experience water only when it is pulled out of the water; that is, when some fundamental change occurs. Often that is how we first begin to encounter culture -when some fundamental changes occur.
The question remains “Who invented water?” This question brings us to the title of this blog: What Henry Cavendish Can Teach Us About Organizational Culture? If you do a search for the question “Who invented water?”, the most common answer is Henry Cavendish. A sample response is:
Henry Cavendish. (1731 – 1810) was a chemist, who discovered the composition of water, when he experimented with hydrogen and oxygen and mixed these elements together to create an explosion (oxyhydrogen effect).
Consequently, Cavendish is generally credited with discovering water. A more thorough description of Cavendish’s is:
A natural philosopher, the greatest experimental and theoretical English chemist and physicist of his age, Henry Cavendish (10 Oct. 1731 – 24 Feb. 1810) was distinguished for great accuracy and precision in researches into the composition of atmospheric air, the properties of different gases, the synthesis of water, the law governing electrical attraction and repulsion, and calculations of the density (and hence the weight) of the Earth.
The story of Henry Cavendish is fascinating. He was born into English aristocracy. His father, Lord Charles Cavendish, was active in politics and science. Henry was painfully shy and had no interest in politics, however, he did share his father’s passion for science. His father introduced Henry to the Royal Society, where he became an active member. He spent his life involved in a wide range of problem solving and research. He was a pioneer in scientific research and discovery. So, what can we learn from Henry Cavendish that helps us understand organizational culture?
Lessons on Organizational Culture from Cavendish
The statement “Cavendish was distinguished for great accuracy and precision in researches” gives us a clue and says much about his approach to problem solving. Cavendish experimented to increase the understanding of complex phenomenon. He was also noted for his great accuracy and precision. Perhaps the first lesson from Cavendish for us about culture is experimentation. I frequently encounter executives who think they know culture and consequently have closed off inquiry and thinking strategically about culture. I use this expression know culture to describe a mindset which I frequently encounter that executives have:
- Read articles about culture
- Been involved in processes to identify the organization's values
- Can talk convincingly about the importance of culture to performance of business
Unfortunately, this is based on surface level understanding of culture which in turn provides little access to action. What most of us miss is that there is a third level of culture which determines how the organization functions.
The Third Level of Culture
Edgar Schein first identified this third level which he called Basic or Tacit Assumptions. This third level is based on the shared learning of the group which is used in orienting new people to the organization and has over time become so taken for granted that it is no longer visible to participants in the organization. It becomes the context for that organization.
To deepen our understanding of culture, let’s think about how this context based on tacit assumptions is formed. An organization’s culture begins forming as soon as people come together as a group to address a common opportunity or problem. The culture begins being shaped by the attitudes, decisions and learning of this group. Cultures are built on shared learning by the group as to what works and what produces success and/or avoids failure. Each culture is unique since it is shaped by the nationalities of people involved, personalities of early leaders, professional backgrounds, technologies with which working, etc. Over time there is additional experiences and shared learning by the group which modify and refine the culture. Once we understand how culture is created, we realize that every organization’s culture is unique and so complex that it is virtually impossible to completely know or understand. The most we can hope to achieve is learning enough about how a culture functions that we can develop possible interventions.
Edgar Schein uses the concept of human personality as an analogy to demonstrate that culture is way too complex to understand. He says, “Culture in that sense is like personality or character for an individual, once you’ve learned to be a certain kind of person that is you in all aspects of your functioning and you don’t want to be any different. Which is why culture is hard to change.”
Schein advocates identifying a specific problem or issue that needs to be addressed, and then begins inquiring into the nature of that problem. The assertion is that the presenting problem will likely reflect deeper issues in the organization which can only be identified and addressed through this inquiry. This is where Henry Cavendish can teach us about great accuracy and precision. Cavendish discovered water by identifying the component parts and seeing how these parts interact with each other. As we start to examine a particular problem or opportunity to identify how the culture is influencing it, we want to avoid introducing our favorite explanations or theories. Instead we want to use “great accuracy and precision” which was the hallmark of Cavendish’s career. We want to examine and observe based on what presents itself, rather than our opinions about what is being seen.
At KingChapman we assist clients to develop strategies to change their culture and transform their organization. This intervention begins with identifying the Default Future of their organization. The Default Future is what is going to happen if nothing dramatically changes. That is, if the organization continues on auto pilot what will probably occur. This Default Future is based on the current context and is business as usual. Once the Default Future is identified, the question is “Do you want it?” If the answer is yes, then no further changes are needed.
If the answer is a rousing no (often expressed as "Hell No!"), then the next step is to design a new future which is more attractive and robust for the organization. The next step is to create a new future in which dramatic cultural change and performance improvements occurs. We call this the Invented Future since it is created or literally made up. The Invented Future provides a platform from which clients can see the existing culture as well as design changes in the culture which will enable the organization to make dramatic improvements.
In order to determine areas of the culture which need to be changed, we at KingChapman use our Breakdown Methods. We say that a breakdown is an interruption of a commitment. That is, a group of people are committed to something and for whatever reason that commitment is not kept. This lack of keeping a commitment provides a view for our clients to inquire into the bedrock of their culture, which is the tacit assumptions. Using the Breakdown Methods as a tool, clients are able to separate the observable facts from the opinions and stories which invariably accompany any perceived problem. This separating of observable facts from opinions allows our clients to clearly see a specific part of their culture that is causing problems and interfering with improvements. And with this clear vision of it, clients can see and address the underlying implicit assumptions to implement changes which will improve organizational performance.
What our clients find when they declare a breakdown and begin inquiring into the breakdown is that an unexpected element of the culture has shown itself and caused unexpected behavior by people in the organization. Something surprising occurs. When our methodology is used to identify and inquire into problems which are a reflection of commitments being kept, our clients see specific examples of how a culture is impacting performance. With these insights, our clients can create new ways of thinking and approaching understanding the culture and ultimately making the desired changes.
Who discovered water? Henry Cavendish. What can he teach us about organizational culture? To inquire and observe using great accuracy and precision about how the context and tacit assumptions shape how an organizational culture perceives situations and elicits specific actions. Through great accuracy and precision, we are able to discover the third level of culture which will allow us to be successful in making changes in organizational culture.