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
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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
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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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
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
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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