The secret everyone already knows
Culture is an embodied experience
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead” – Benjamin Franklin
“What's the culture like in your organisation?”
Ask this question to someone who's worked somewhere for a few months, and they'll answer easily, saying something like: “It's not too bad so long as you keep yourself busy, don't question the decisions of senior people, and avoid being associated with failure”. 1
They don’t say “What do you mean by culture”?
If, on the other hand, you ask a business school professor to define organisational culture, you'll likely get a complex salad of words like values, beliefs, climate, symbols, artefacts, totems, and myths.
And, if you’re really unlucky, semiotics, ontology, and epistemology.
In other words, the people who work in an organisation are capable of understanding its culture in experiential terms far simpler than academic descriptions.
This is where efforts to influence organisational culture have gone wrong.
If you’re an anthropologist conducting an academic study of a culture, you don’t mind creating a description so cognitively complex that no-one in a real-world organisation can understand it.
In fact, you may even be required to do so if you want to get published.
But it won’t be of much pragmatic use to ordinary people in real-world organisations seeking to create a future-fit culture of innovation, agility and adaptiveness.
Fortunately, everyone who has ever worked in an organisation already understands how its culture works - through their embodied experience. 2
It was this insight, more than 30 years ago, that laid the foundation for my former colleague Dr Peter Scott-Morgan’s pragmatic approach to organisational culture change - The Unwritten Rules of the Game. 3
Here’s how he critiqued word salad approaches to culture compared to an established professional discipline - financial management. 4
“It’s as if we went into a company and took a photocopy of the balance sheet, the P&L account, noted the colour of the leather binding on a ledger, recorded the pattern on the carpet in the accounts department, and wrote a memo documenting the age, make, colour, and weight of one of the doors of the car driven by the chief financial officer – and claimed we had just conducted a financial audit.
Of course we haven't. All we have done is record a large number of facts all loosely related to finance.”
His point was that whilst such descriptions of culture are arguably evidence-based, they’re pretty useless for guiding pragmatic culture change, concluding that:
“Maybe 10 years ago we should have come down from the clouds and looked inside ourselves to think what was actually driving our own behaviour, rather than come up with grandiose constructs relating to culture.
If only we had, we would have found that there was indeed a more pragmatic, leaner way to come to grips with behavioural barriers to effective change. We would have understood that most of the time, charting corporate culture is not even necessary. What is more, we would have realised that we knew the key insight all along.
It is the secret that everyone already knows.”
The secret everyone already knows
To understand how organisational culture actually works, all you need do is look inside yourself at your own lived experience.
But NOT through the lens of a theory of how you think culture works, or how you think it should work.
Look into your experience of culture as a personal, embodied experience – not as a conceptual cognitive construct.
Try it now.
Look inside and feel your way to answering the question: “In organisations where I’ve worked, how did I come to understand ‘the way we do things round here’?
Those seven words – ‘the way we do things round here’ – encapsulate the embodied human experience of the organisational culture acquired within a few months.
That’s what people describe when you ask them about their organisation’s culture, maybe prompting them with something like: “What’s the advice you’d give a close friend about how to survive and thrive in the organisation”?
So, looking at your own embodied experience, what clues, cues, signs & signals did you actually draw upon in the past to figure out ‘the way we do things round here’?
If you’re like 90% of the thousands of people we’ve explored these themes with over the past 30 years, it won’t have been the organisation’s values, beliefs, climate, symbols, artefacts, totems, and myths. 5
In practice, we form our embodied experience of organisation culture based on two main factors:
#1 - Who really matters?
Who really matters are the people, not necessarily in the most senior positions, who actually influence whether we get access to what we want from our work and/or influence whether we end up being obliged to do things we don’t want to do.
If, for example, if I want interesting work, fast career progression, travel, client exposure, etc – who can grant or deny me access to those things?
These are the people who, in an embodied experiential way, really matter.
#2 What do the people who really matter want to see from me?
Once our embodied experience reveals who really matters, we then focus on what we conclude those individuals expect of us: what they want to see (and not see) to grant (or deny) us access to what we want (or want to avoid).
Equipped with this understanding we know, in an embodied way, the sensible way to behave.
Our collective embodied experience dictates the way we do things round here.
It’s the secret everyone already knows.
Seeing culture as an embodied experience helps focus pragmatic efforts to a create future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness where sense making, decision making & action taking are ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
Find out more about the channels that convey the clues, cues, signs & signals we draw upon to figure out ‘the way we do things round here’ in The seven channels of culture.
These are examples of Unwritten Rules - which you can think of as ‘the advice you’d give a close friend on how to survive and thrive in the organisation’.
Some people who might be described as ‘on the spectrum’ may have more difficulty.
Peter’s bestseller The Unwritten Rules of the Game was McGraw-Hill’s Business Book of the Year 1994 (ISBN 0-07-057075-2). He and I worked closely together for 15 years until he retired in 2007.
By the time Peter’s book was published in 1994 there was already ten years of solid evidence that ‘word salad’ approaches to culture were abject failures.
Of the remaining 10%, many are from HR, OD, or other roles where they’ve read and internalised models of culture that use these disembodied terms and they post-hoc rationalise their own actual embodied experience of culture using this language.