Organizational Culture: Map or Maturity Model?

A special thanks for this article is due to several coworkers who have helped create these ideas, further them with discussion, and offer invaluable feedback. While our blogging system only allows one author, a special thanks is due to Skip Angel, Erin Beierwaltes, Carlos Buxton, Devin Hedge, Michele Madore, and Jeff Steinberg. As part of our recent company wide meetings – affectionately called “BVCon” – I explored some of the concepts outlined below. This blog represents some of our current thinking.

I’ve been spending a lot of time researching organizational culture, and its implications for organizational performance, as well as capacity for change and I think I’ve come to a fundamental question about potentially conflicting frameworks. This continues to be an open question for me, and you can consider this blog post to be a further exploration of the topic. Simply put, I see two different ways of looking at culture. The first model is to consider is as a map or canvas of possible values. It’s not so much that any one is good or bad, namely different. The second model looks at it more as a maturity model, which implies there is a specific path organizations should pursue. While this may at first blush appear to be a very semantic argument, I’m finding that choosing one model over the other, or even trying to blend the two, can have very profound impacts for how you coach an organization, help it know itself and improve. Let’s dive in a little deeper.

Why Culture Matters?

Even before I became a consultant, I had heard from coworkers something similar to, “well, you can’t change that, it’s just our culture”. Such a disclaimer has never been satisfying for me, and I’ve long wanted something more meaningful and concrete when discussing an organization’s culture. Indeed, this is what attracted me to the concept of culture maps or models: they offer a fairly concrete way for taking pretty abstract and nebulous concepts so that we can talk about them, make meaning and make change as necessary. The first simple explanation of culture I heard is the anthropological explanation that it represents, “what most people do, most of the time”. Here we see something based very clearly on behaviors. The challenge with this model is that when we talk about changing an organization, we are ultimately talking about changing what people do most of the time. This description doesn’t offer us a depth of understanding motivation or other driving forces that have created the behaviors we see.

This is manifest in the people who broadly assert that no change can happen without executive support, clearly implying that the only way to change what people do is through autocratic fiat or new policies. Unfortunately, my own experience seeking an inordinate number of policies ignored, disregarded or implemented with mere paper compliance causes me to question that simple model. One really can’t help but reach the  conclusion that organizational success is more complex than simply what people in an organization do. When looking at successful companies such as Apple and Southwest Airlines, Quinn observed

“The sustained success of these firms has had less to do with market forces than with company values, less to do with competitive positioning than with personal beliefs, and less to do with resource advantages than with vision.”

Quinn, Robert E.; Cameron, Kim S. (2011-02-10). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework (Kindle Locations 293-295). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

Culture as a Map

My own research, as well as recommendations from colleagues like Michael Sahota led me towards models that plotted out an organizations culture along various competing values. The two most accessible models I’ve encountered are the Schneider model and the OCAI Competing Values Framework. They models seek to align organizations along two dimensions, enumerating four quadrants where an organization’s culture may potentially reside.

Let’s take a closer look at the OCAI Framework, which charts organizations along their focus on hierarchy vs. flexibility and internal vs. external focus. An important aspect of this is that such a map is similar to a Myers-Briggs inventory. There is not meant to be any judgement values of one type being better or worse than another. Merely, they are different. However, that certainly doesn’t resonate with my own biases, or that of many of my colleagues. Looking at Figure one, most of us would consider a hierarchical culture to be inferior to one based on clan or adhocracy perspective, for example.

Indeed, much of the agile community – myself included – subscribes to the belief that we are trying to get companies to move away from a hierarchical, control-based organization. Such a  tool may still be very useful as a way to add structure to a discussion about what an organization’s current culture looks like, I’m not sure it offers an effective path for talking about how to change it. Let’s take a concrete example

The Culture of BigVisible

At the last BigVisible corporate retreat, an annual event we’ve dubbed “BVCon”, I had the opportunity to work with several colleagues on a cultural assessment of the company. The results are included in figure 2. As you can see, the company has an absolute preference for cultivation. The more we thought about this, the more sense it made. For those of you who follow some of my coworkers on twitter, you will notice the tagline they use of “be excellent”. Even at the retreat, a number of us asked Giora Morein what he saw as the goal for BigVisible for his next year, and his response was, “what do you want it to be?”

As we started to debrief the exercise and talk about the implications, we said that we thought this meant we should be focusing on collaboration to balance it with cultivation. This was manifest in the sentiment that one of our own challenges is organizing a group of geographically distributed coaches into producing things like articles, updated training materials, and other assets that can help everyone. Actually, most everyone, when first looking at the map figured that the organization’s preference would be towards collaboration. At this point, I’m not so sure that we really had the correct interpretation of this type of map.

Aligning a Culture Map with Process Frameworks

We were suspicious. We felt that perhaps there was more to this than simply an organizational personality test. While I was struggling with Google Documents to build a survey so that we could collect the data in figure two, several colleagues were trying to map different values from various frameworks onto the map to see if there was a preference. This came from some work Michael Sahota has done, where he posited that different frameworks are more fitting for different cultures. I hoped we would see some similar patterns to the ones he did, but our exercise came up much less conclusively than his did.

Figure three takes the values from several different methodologies and frameworks including: Product Development Flow (Blue), Software Craftsmanship (Pink), Demming (Yellow), Agile (Orange), Kanban (Salmon), and Lean (Green). While there are a few clusters, like Kanban mostly being in the “control” area, most seemed to span the spectrum. Based on this, I’m not sure I can confidently point to a given framework as best residing within a certain culture. If we look at the Agile values, you will notice that they manage to get some in every single quadrant, confounding the idea that an organization’s maturity represents a journey from one area to another.

However, you’ve indulged me this far, so how about we try to take a cultural maturity model and apply it to this map.

Tribal Leadership Cultures verse the Schneider Culture Map

For purposes of this exercise, let’s use the Tribal Leadership levels of culture, as it provides a fairly simple one that most people are familiar with. I should probably also offer a disclaimer that this is really more of a hypothetical proposal rather than one I am confident is true. I’d love to walk through the progression of stages within Tribal Leadership, but for the sake of keeping blog entry a little bit shorter, I will trust those who want to learn more to follow the earlier link to learn more. Additional disclaimer, I am proposing that “cultivation” is the ideal culture, which I fully realize is the dominant culture at BigVisible. Nonetheless, let’s do a cursory review to see if it holds water.

On the recommendation of several colleagues, I am still reading The Reengineering Challenge, so I can’t weigh in too heavily about the Schneider culture model yet. However, figure 4 best represents my current understanding. From discussions with others, I see that the proposed progression breaks one big rule of the Schneider model, namely that diagonal shifts across both axis are most difficult. Thus, the proposal of moving from a “Competence” to a “Collaboration” model may not be correct. If we accept that “Cultivation” is the goal, then perhaps there are more paths forward. Unfortunately, from my preliminary analysis, I find myself with more questions than answers and probably need to dig deeper. I’d certainly welcome other people’s perspectives.

One Last Perspective

I need to give credit to Michael Hamman, as he proposed another view of this, namely that a map like the OCAI or Schneider models may be compatible with a maturity model like Tribal Leadership or Leadership Inquiry. He offered the perspective that perhaps the map is a representation of position (for example, we are currently in a “Competence” culture), while the other was a representation of our capacity to change (for example, due to our maturity as a culture, we are aware enough and capable of moving to another part of the map if we so deem). I’m not sure how this fits in, but it seems like a perspective worth considering.