military organization & course:MAN425-advanced organizational management

18 CULTURE ASSESSMENT AS PART OF MANAGED ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE

Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen described the various ways in which cultures evolve

and change. Many of those changes are stimulated by leadership behavior such as

promoting people with certain kinds of values and beliefs. When those kinds of activities

are too slow, as when an organization is facing the need for rapid change, executive

leaders turn to a managed change process, using the change model described in the

previous chapter and the processes that are elaborated in my book, Corporate Culture

Survival Guide, 2d Ed. (2009b). As was pointed out, culture will become implicated in

such changes and sometimes becomes the direct target of change. It becomes necessary,

then, to have a way of assessing culture rapidly so that the change leaders can determine

how cultural elements will help them, will hinder them, or will become change targets in

their own right.

Rapid Deciphering—A Multistep Group Process

The process that I will describe is designed to give the leaders of a change process a rapid

way of deciphering elements of their own culture so that they can assess its relevance to

their change program. I have often been asked to design a survey or do an interview

program in this context and have always argued that this is neither necessary nor

desirable. The group interview process described next is both faster and more valid

because an interactive process gets to shared assumptions more quickly. This process is

most useful in the context of a change program in which the change goals have already

been made explicit so that the culture can be assessed as a potential aid or hindrance to

the change program (Schein, 2009b). Without the change focus, this process can seem

boring and pointless.

If I am asked to do a culture assessment, I always ask, “Why do you want to do

this?” “What problem are you trying to solve?” “What do you mean by culture, and why

do you think a culture assessment would be useful.” The answers typically reveal some

change agenda that the client has, and it is important to get the client to specify clearly

what that change agenda is. After the client has identified in concrete terms what the

desired “new way of working” is, the culture assessment can then be done rapidly

(Schein, 2009b).

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The essence of the assessment process is to bring together one or more representative

groups in the organization, provide them a model of how to think about organizational

culture and subcultures, and then ask them to identify the main artifacts, the espoused

values, and the shared tacit assumptions, with an outsider playing the role of facilitator,

documenter, and, when necessary, gadfly and question asker. A member of the

organization in a leader role can be the facilitator, as long as it is not his or her own

department and as long as he or she has an understanding of how culture works. This

kind of assessment is based on several key assumptions:

Culture is a set of shared assumptions; hence, obtaining the initial data in a group

setting is more appropriate and valid than conducting individual interviews.

The contextual meaning of cultural assumptions can only be fully understood by

members of the culture; hence, creating a vehicle for their understanding is more

important than for the researcher or consultant to obtain that understanding.

Not all parts of a culture are relevant to any given issue the organization may be

facing; hence, attempting to study an entire culture in all of its facets is not only

impractical but also usually inappropriate.

Insiders are capable of understanding and making explicit the shared tacit

assumptions that make up the culture, but they need outsider help in this process.

The helper/consultant should therefore operate primarily from a process-consulting

model and should avoid, as much as possible, becoming an expert on the content of

any given group’s culture (Schein, 1999a, 2009a).

Some cultural assumptions will be perceived as helping the organization to achieve

its change goals or resolving its current issues, while others will be perceived as

constraints or barriers; hence it is important for the group members to have a

process that allows them to sort cultural assumptions into both of these categories.

Changes in organizational practices to solve the problems that initiated the culture

assessment can usually be achieved by building on existing assumptions; that is, the

culture-deciphering process often reveals that new practices not only can be derived

from the existing culture, but should be.

If changes in the culture are discovered to be necessary, those changes will rarely

involve the entire culture; it will almost always be a matter of changing one or two

assumptions. Only rarely does the basic paradigm have to change, but if it does, the

organization faces a multiyear major change process.

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Step One: Obtaining Leadership Commitment

Deciphering cultural assumptions and evaluating their relevance to some organizational

change program must be viewed as a major intervention in the organization’s life and,

therefore, must only be undertaken with the full understanding and consent of the formal

leaders of the organization. This means not only probing why the leaders in an

organization want to do this assessment but also fully describing the process and its

potential consequences to obtain their full commitment to the group meetings that will be

involved.

Step Two: Selecting Groups for Self-Assessment

The next step is for the facilitator to work with the formal leaders to determine how best

to select some groups representative of the corporate culture. The criteria for selection

usually depend on the concrete nature of the problem to be solved. Groups can either be

homogeneous with respect to a given department or rank level or made deliberately

heterogeneous by selecting diagonal slices from the organization. The group can be as

small as three and as large as thirty. If important subcultures are believed to be

operating, the process can be repeated with several different groups or samples of

members can be brought in from different groups in order to test, in the meetings,

whether the assumed differences exist.

The composition of the group is further determined by the client leaders’ perceptions of

the level of trust and openness in the organization, especially in regard to deciding

whether senior people who might inhibit the discussion should be present. On the one

hand, it is desirable to have a fairly open discussion, which might mean not mixing rank

levels. On the other hand, it is critical to determine the extent to which the assumptions

that eventually come out in the group meetings are shared across hierarchical levels,

which argues for mixed rank groups. Because the level of trust and openness across

various boundaries is itself a cultural characteristic, it is best to start with a

heterogeneous group and let the group experience the extent to which certain areas of

communication are or are not inhibited by the presence of others. Because authority

relationships and level of intimacy are primary cultural dimensions, the process of group

selection with insiders will itself reveal some important elements of the culture. The

consultant/facilitator should use his or her interactions with members of the client

system as diagnostic data throughout this planning process.

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After groups have been chosen, the formal leader should inform the groups of the

purpose of the meetings, review his or her conversations with the facilitator, and explain

the basis on which people were chosen to attend. Just being summoned to a meeting to

do a culture assessment is too vague. The participants must know what change problems

are being worked on, and they must become aware that the leaders are committed to the

assessment process. The leader should emphasize that openness and candor are needed,

and that culture is not good or bad.

Step Three: Selecting an Appropriate Setting for the Group Self-Assessment

The group meeting should stimulate perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that are

ordinarily implicit. The room in which the meeting is to be held must therefore be

comfortable, allow people to sit in a circular format, and permit the hanging of many

sheets of flip chart paper on which cultural elements will be written. In addition there

should be available a set of breakout rooms in which subgroups can meet, especially if the

basic group is larger than fifteen or so participants.

Step Four: Explaining the Purpose of the Group Meeting (15 mins.)

The meeting should start with a statement of the purpose of the meeting by someone

from the organization who is perceived to be in a leadership or authority role, so that

openness of response is encouraged. The organizational change problem should be

clearly stated and written down, allowing for questions and discussion. The purpose of

this step is not only to be clear as to why this meeting is being held but also to begin to

get the group involved in the process.

The insider then introduces the process consultant as the “facilitator who will help us to

conduct an assessment of how our organization’s culture will help or constrain us in

solving the problem or resolving the issue we have identified.” The process consultant can

be an outsider, a member of the organization who is part of a staff group devoted to

providing internal consulting services, or even a leader from another department if he or

she is familiar with how culture works and is familiar with this group process.

Step Five: A Short Lecture on How to Think About Culture

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(15 mins.)

It is essential for the group to understand that culture manifests itself at the level of

artifacts and espoused values, but that the goal is to try to decipher the shared tacit

assumptions that lie at a lower level of consciousness. The consultant should, therefore,

present the three-level model of assumptions, espoused values, and basic assumptions

shown in Chapter Two, and ensure that everyone understands that culture is a learned

set of assumptions based on a group’s shared history. It is important for the group to

understand that what they are about to assess is a product of their own history and that

the culture’s stability rests on the organization’s past success.

Step Six: Eliciting Descriptions of the Artifacts (60 mins.)

The process consultant then tells the group that they are going to start by describing the

culture through its artifacts. A useful way to begin is to find out who has joined the group

most recently and ask that person what it felt like to enter the organization and what she

or he noticed most upon entering it. Everything mentioned is written down on a flip

chart, and as the pages are filled, they are torn off and hung on the wall so that everything

remains visible.

If group members are active in supplying information, the facilitator can stay relatively

quiet, but if the group needs priming, the facilitator should suggest categories such as

dress codes, desired modes of behavior in addressing the boss, the physical layout of the

workplace, how time and space are used, what kinds of emotions someone would notice,

how people get rewarded and punished, how someone gets ahead in the organization,

how decisions are made, how conflicts and disagreements are handled, how work and

family life are balanced, and so forth. The facilitator can use the categories reviewed in

Chapters Five and Six to ensure that many different area of how things are done in the

organization get discussed, but it is important not to give out such a list before a

spontaneous group discussion has occurred because it may bias the group’s perception of

what is important. The consultant does not know initially what areas of the culture are

especially salient and relevant and so should not bias the process of deciphering by

providing a checklist. Noting later what areas do not come out spontaneously can itself be

an indicator of cultural characteristics that are important but difficult to talk about.

This process should continue for about one hour or until the group clearly runs dry, and

it should produce a long list of artifacts covering all sorts of areas of the group’s life.

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Being visually surrounded by the description of their own artifacts is a necessary

condition for the group to begin to stimulate its own deeper layers of thinking about what

assumptions its members share.

Step Seven: Identifying Espoused Values (15–30 mins.)

The question that elicits artifacts is “What is going on here?” By contrast, the question

that elicits espoused values is “Why are you doing what you are doing?” It is often the

case that values will already have been mentioned during the discussion of artifacts so

these should be written down on different pages. To elicit further values, I pick an area of

artifacts that is clearly of interest to the group and ask people to articulate the reasons

why they do what they do. For example, if they have said that the place is very informal

and that there are few status symbols, I ask why. This usually elicits value statements

such as “We value problem solving more than formal authority” or “We think that a lot of

communication is a good thing” or even “We don’t believe that bosses should have more

rights than subordinates.”

As values or beliefs are stated, I check for consensus; if there appears to be consensus, I

write down the values or beliefs on the new chart pad. If members disagree, I explore why

by asking whether this is a matter of different subgroups having different values or there

is genuine lack of consensus, in which case the item goes on the list with a question mark

to remind us to revisit it. I encourage the group to look at all the artifacts they have

identified and to figure out as best they can what values seem to be implied. If I see some

obvious values that they have not named, I will suggest them as possibilities—but in a

spirit of joint inquiry, not as an expert conducting a content analysis of their data. After

we have a list of values to look at, we are ready to push on to underlying assumptions.

Step Eight: Identifying Shared Underlying Assumptions (15–30 mins.)

The key to getting at the underlying assumptions is to check whether the espoused values

that have been identified really explain all of the artifacts or whether things that have

been described as going on have clearly not been explained or are in actual conflict with

some of the values articulated. For example, the members of a group from Apple

Computer conducted some cultural assessments in the 1980s for the purpose of

identifying how their rate of growth would impact their organizational structure and

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needs for physical expansion. On the list of artifacts, they noted that they spend a great

deal of time in planning and in documenting the plans, but that the plans usually got

overridden by the needs of a here-and-now crisis. They had put planning on their list of

espoused values and felt genuinely puzzled and ashamed that they followed through so

little on the plans they had made. This raised the whole issue of how time was perceived,

and, after some discussion, the group members agreed that they operated from a deeper

shared assumption that could best be stated as “Only the present counts.” Once they

stated the assumption in this form, they immediately saw on their own artifact list other

items that confirmed this and thought of several new artifacts that further reinforced

their orientation toward and preoccupation with the immediate present.

The same group identified many different informal activities that members engaged in,

including parties at the end of workdays, celebrations when products were launched,

birthday parties for employees, joint travel to recreational areas such as ski resorts, and

so on. The value they espoused was that they liked being with each other. But as we

pondered the data, it became clear that a deeper assumption was involved,

namely, “Business can and should be more than making money; it can and should be fun

as well.” Once this assumption was articulated, it immediately led the group to realize

that a further assumption was operating: “Business not only should be more than just

making money; it can and should be socially significant.”

The latter assumption reminded the group members of a whole other set of artifacts

concerning the value they put on their products, why they liked some products better

than others, why they valued some of their engineers more than others, how their

founders had articulated their original values, and so on. A whole new issue was raised

about the pros and cons of selling to the government and to the defense industries versus

continuing to focus on the education sector.

Once assumptions are made conscious, this usually triggers a whole new set of insights

and begins to make sense of a whole range of things that previously had not made sense.

Sometimes assumptions reconcile what the group may have perceived as value conflicts.

For example, in doing this exercise, a group of human resource professionals at an

insurance company identified as an important value “becoming more innovative and

taking more risks as the environment changes,” but the members could not reconcile this

goal with the fact that very little actual innovation was taking place. In pushing deeper to

the assumption level, they realized that throughout its history, the company had operated

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on two very central assumptions about human behavior: (1) People work best when they

are given clear rules to cover all situations (among the artifacts the group had listed was

a “mile-long shelf of procedure manuals”), and (2) people like immediate feedback and

will not obey rules unless rule violation is immediately punished. Once the group stated

these tacit assumptions, they realized that those assumptions were driving their behavior

far more than the espoused value of innovation and risk taking. Not only was there no

real positive incentive for innovating, in fact, it was risky because any false steps would

immediately be punished. Another example was the previously cited case of the

engineering group at HP that discovered that the espoused values of “teamwork”

and “being nice to each other” were overruled by the tacit assumption that individualistic

competitive behavior was the way to get things done and get ahead.

As assumptions surface, the facilitator should test for consensus and then write them

down on a separate list. This list becomes important as the visible articulation of the

cultural essences that have been identified. This phase of the exercise is finished when the

group and the facilitator feel that they have identified most of the critical assumption

areas, and participants are now clear on what an assumption is.

Step Nine: Identifying Cultural Aids and Hindrances (30–60 mins.)

If the group is small enough (fifteen to twenty), it should take this next step together. If

the group is larger than twenty, it is best to divide it into two or three subgroups. The task

for subgroups depends in part on what the presenting problems were, whether or not

subcultures were identified in the large group exercise, and how much time is available.

For example, if there was evidence in the large group meeting that there are functional,

geographical, occupational, or hierarchical subcultures, the facilitator may want to send

off subgroups that reflect those presumed differences and have each subgroup further

explore its own assumption set. Or, if the facilitator finds that there is reasonable

consensus in the large group on the assumptions identified, he or she can compose the

subgroups randomly, by business unit, or by any other criterion that makes sense given

the larger problem or issue that is being addressed.

In any case, the next task is to categorize the assumptions according to whether they will

aid or hinder the change process that is being pursued. The group needs to review what

the “new way of working” is and how the assumptions identified will help or hinder in

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getting there. It is very important to require the participants to look at assumptions from

this dual point of view because of a tendency to see culture only as a constraint and thus

put too much emphasis on the assumptions that will hinder. In fact, successful

organizational change probably arises more from identifying assumptions that will aid

than from changing assumptions that will hinder, but groups initially have a harder time

seeing how the culture can be a source of positive help.

Step Ten: Decisions on Next Steps (30 mins.)

The purpose of this step is to reach some kind of consensus on what the important shared

assumptions are and their implications for what the organization wants to do next. If

there have been subgroups meeting, the process starts when the subgroups report their

own separate analyses to the full group. If there is a high degree of consensus, the

facilitator can go straight into a discussion of implications and next steps. More likely

there will be some variations, and possibly disagreements, which will require some

further inquiry and analysis by the total group with the help of the facilitator.

For example, the group may agree that there are strong subculture differences that must

be taken into account. Or some of the assumptions may have to be reexamined to

determine whether they reflect an even deeper level that would resolve disagreements. Or

the group may come to recognize that for various reasons, it does not have many shared

assumptions. In each case, the role of the facilitator is to raise questions, force

clarification, test perceptions, and in other ways help the group achieve as clear a picture

as possible of the assumption set that is driving the group’s day-to-day perceptions,

feelings, thoughts, and ultimately, behavior.

Once there is some consensus on what the shared assumptions are, the discussion

proceeds to the implications of what has been identified. One of the biggest insights at

this point comes from seeing how some of the assumptions will aid them, creating the

possibility that their energy should go into strengthening those positive assumptions

instead of worrying about overcoming the constraining ones. If, however, real constraints

are identified, the group discussion then has to shift to an analysis of how culture can be

managed and what it would take to overcome the identified constraints. At this point a

brief further lecture on the material described in Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen

may be needed to review some of the culture change mechanisms that are implied, and a

new set of groups may be formed to develop a culture change strategy. Typically, this

requires, at a minimum, an additional half-day with possibly new groups.

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The process described so far can be done in a day or even less. It is not necessary to think

of culture assessment as a slow, time-consuming process. It is not only more efficient to

work in groups instead of doing individual interviews or surveys but, more importantly,

the data are likely to be more valid because the deeper elements of culture only surface

interactively and, having been produced in a group context, their validity can be tested

immediately. Culture is a group phenomenon best assessed in a group context.

But there is an important possible limitation that has to be considered from a

researcher’s point of view—the results of the assessment may be completely clear to the

insiders and still puzzling to the outsider. If the goal is to help the organization, this is

okay. The outsider does not need to fully understand the culture. If, on the other hand,

the researcher wants enough clarity to be able to represent the culture to others,

additional observational data and group meetings are likely to be necessary.

What If Culture Elements Need to Change?

In my experience, the assessment process usually reveals that most of the culture will aid

the change process. However, there may well be elements of the culture that are a barrier

and require their own change program. For example, when the Alpha Power employees

were required to identify and fix environmental hazards, this was recognized as a culture

change in that it required employees to develop a different self-image and a different

understanding of what their basic job was.

If the new required behavior involves changing the norms of a subgroup over which

management may have only limited control, then a longer-range change process using a

variety of tools may be necessary. For example, in Alpha Power, the ultimate goal of

having employees monitor each other and report on each other if safety or environmental

hazards are discovered runs into the deep assumption in the union subculture that “peers

will not rat on each other.” The goal in the company is ultimately to be able to rely on all

employees to take full responsibility in this area and not to cover up dangerous behavior

by fellow employees. That has resulted in a long-range change program built around

involvement of the union and changes in both the reward and discipline system. Such a

program where elements of subcultures need to change can take years and a variety of

intensive efforts. Consequently just announcing “a culture change” is meaningless until

the change leadership has specified what the new behavior is to be and has differentiated

those cultural elements that are under their direct behavioral control from those that

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require changes in the behavior of members of subcultures.

How these processes work themselves out in organizations is highly variable, as the next

chapter will show. Subcultures are discovered, macrocultural assumptions affect what is

defined as a crisis or business problem, culture assessments reveal that culture need not

change at all if certain other business processes are fixed, and culture change goals are

defined that may take years to accomplish successfully. Rather than make generalizations

about this variety of issues, in the next chapter I will provide several short cases and one

long case where I was involved and, therefore, knew what was really happening.

Published cases are hard to decipher because I cannot know how much the author and/or

consultant is using definitions similar to mine in telling the story. For example, Gerstner

in his analysis of IBM’s turnaround is widely credited with having achieved a major

culture change in IBM, yet when you read his account carefully, it appears to be a case of

getting IBM management to realize that they needed to get back to their roots, their

effective sales/marketing culture (Gerstner, 2002). They had gone off course and

become complacent, but their culture was viewed as a strength. So as you read the cases

in the next chapter, be alert to the fact that organizational change is often no culture

change at all or, at best, a change only in some elements of the culture.

Summary and Conclusions

The assessment process described and illustrated reflects a number of conclusions:

Culture can be assessed by means of various individual and group interview

processes, with group interviews being by far the better method in terms of both

validity and efficiency. Such assessments can be usefully made by insiders in as little

as a half-day.

A culture assessment is of little value unless it is tied to some organizational problem

or issue. In other words, assessing a culture for its own sake is not only too vast an

undertaking but also can be viewed as boring and useless. On the other hand, when

the organization has a purpose, a new strategy, a problem to be solved, or a change

agenda, then to determine how the culture impacts the issue is not only useful but in

most cases necessary. The issue should be related to the organization’s effectiveness

and should be stated in as concrete a way as possible. We cannot say that the culture

itself is an issue or problem. The culture impacts how the organization performs, and

the initial focus should always be on where the performance needs to be improved.

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The assessment process should first identify cultural assumptions, and then assess

them in terms of whether they are a strength or a constraint on what the organization

is trying to do. In most organizational change efforts, it is much easier to draw on the

strengths of the culture than to overcome the constraints by changing the culture.

In any cultural assessment process, we should be sensitive to the presence of

subcultures and be prepared to do separate assessments of them to determine their

relevance to what the organization is trying to do.

For a culture assessment to be valuable, it must get to the assumptions level. If the

client system does not get to assumptions, it cannot explain the discrepancies that

almost always surface between the espoused values and the observed behavioral

artifacts.

It should be noted that the ten-step group process described here is extremely fast.

Within a few hours, a group can get a good approximation of what some of its major

assumptions are. The facilitator may not understand the culture, but unless he or she is a

researcher, it does not matter as long as the group can move forward on its change

agenda. If it is important for the outsider/researcher to be able to describe the culture in

more detailed terms, then additional observations, participant observation, and more

group assessments need to be made until a complete picture emerges.

In the next chapter, I will provide several illustrations of the role of culture in

organizational change processes and show where the assessment process aided the

overall change program.

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