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August 30, 2016

3 Types of Culture

3 mins read

We’ve all heard culture is vital to creating and sustaining a healthy organization. It was even Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year in 2014. We also know culture is notoriously hard to describe. If you want an eye-opening experience, just ask a group of your employees to describe your own organization’s culture and see what kind of responses you get – after the quizzical, contemplative, and downright stumped looks, of course. Even harder than describing culture is demonstrating its contribution to organizational performance.

Culture’s importance is reinforced in the DevOps movement as the “C” in “CALMS” – one of the key aspects of DevOps. Culture also shapes how an organization shares information – “sharing” being the “S” in “CALMS” and another key aspect of DevOps.

But for all its importance, we’ve had few tools and limited research to describe or quantify culture.

That is, until Dr. Ron Westrum came along and gave us his “Three Cultures Model” to describe different ways organizations process information. He shared his model and research in his paper “A typology of organizational cultures,” published in Quality & Safety in Health Care in 2004. The table below from his paper identifies the three cultures and provides attributes describing how organizations with each culture share information.

Table showing the attributes of three cultures

You might already have a pretty good idea of what type of culture an organization has based on how closely your observations align to the descriptions in the table. Dr. Westrum provides another way to determine what type of culture an organization has: look at the organization’s response to anomalies and when things go wrong.

Graphic of how orgs respond to problems

  • Suppression – Harming or stopping the person bringing the anomaly to light; “shooting the messenger”. This is why we have “whistleblower” laws
  • Encapsulation – Isolating the messenger so that the message is not heard
  • Public relations – Putting the message “in context” to minimize its impact
  • Local fix – Responding to the present case, but ignoring the possibility of others elsewhere
  • Global fix – An attempt to respond to the problem wherever it exists
  • Inquiry – Attempting to get at the “root causes” of the problem

The further to the left an organization is in its response to anomalies, the more pathological its culture. The further to the right an organization is, the more generative its culture.

So we can identify an organization’s culture more definitively. So what? What impact does a culture have on the organization?

Dr. Westrum puts it well in his paper: “A mass of case study and anecdotal evidence suggests that generative environments, with high alignment, awareness, and empowerment, are more effective than the alternatives.” And later, “A generative culture will make the best use of its assets, a pathological one will not.”

Google’s research into its own teams last year showed the single most important factor to team effectiveness was psychological safety: the ability to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. Generative cultures are more supportive of psychological safety, and therefore, employees feel more comfortable taking risks.

The 2015 State of DevOps report also identifies a predictive relationship between organizational culture performance and organizational performance using rigorous statistical methods. In fact, culture was one of the top three predictors of organizational performance (IT performance and investment in DevOps being the other two).

Bottom line: make your culture more generative if you want a better team and organizational performance.

How would you characterize your own organization relative to Westrum’s three cultures? And what ideas do you have to move your organization toward a more generative culture?

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