A Powerful Tool for Organizational Analysis and Design (Part 3)

In my first two articles about this topic I described how to use the concept of open vs. closed organizations in order to gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses an organization possesses. To help a company transform successfully a change manager must adjust the organization appropriately so that its form is optimally matched to its function. I also covered a case study to show how the model worked on one of my own projects.

In this third and last installment I want do provide a little more of a deep-dive and cover the expression of an open and closed culture in different aspects of an organization. Hopefully this will allow you to record your own observations and build your own diagnostic capabilities when it comes to analyzing culture.

Don Harrison with AIM defines corporate culture as “the collective pattern of behaviors, values, and unwritten rules developed over time.”

Behavior of members of an organization is easy to spot; it is demonstrated in observable actions and guides operations on a daily basis. It is reflected in the structure of an organization, such as a functional organization versus a matrix organization. It can be tracked through organizational charts, ways of working or HR policies and typically is readily discussed.

The shared values of an organization are its underlying, driving beliefs to which anyone can refer, either as a guide to action or as a justification for having taken action. They are essential to personal and organizational integrity and provide guidance for making and implementing strategic decisions.

Unwritten rules determine what members of the organization perceive to be successful behaviors. These successful behaviors become replicated over and over until they become “the way we do things around here”. The rules are generally not openly debated and therefore very powerful. They are harder to lay open than the observable behaviors or the underlying values of an organization.

It follows, therefore, that if we want to assess whether a client’s culture is primarily open or closed we should look to the behavioral aspect of culture. Some dimensions that suggest themselves are how people perform their jobs, how they interact with one another, how the organization focuses on what is important and how it is structured.

As you conduct a culture audit and speak with stakeholders pay attention to the following information:

 Observations about people’s jobs – open vs. closed:

  • There are many ways to achieve performance vs. there is only one sanctioned way to do the job
  • Only the most critical aspects of jobs and methods are specified vs. jobs and methods are specified to the greatest extent possible
  • Jobs require a variety of skills and knowledge and training and development are lifelong vs. jobs are narrowly defined and training periods are short to enable quick placement

Observations about how people interact with one another – open vs. closed:

  • People work in groups to assure interaction and problem solving vs. people work mostly by themselves to minimize distraction
  • People stress the importance of work-life balance vs. people believe that working hard and going “above and beyond” is important
  • Emphasis is on self-organizing teams vs. emphasis is on leadership
  • Managers stress self-motivation and self-responsibility vs. managers stress clear goal-setting and control
  • Diversity in race, world view and gender tends to be higher than the industry norm vs. diversity in race, world view and gender tends to be lower than industry norm

Observations about how the organization focuses on what is important – open vs. closed

  • Mistakes are controlled as near as possible to the point of origin vs. mistakes are controlled by specialized functions if they cannot be eliminated
  • Information goes directly to the point where action can be taken vs. information flows up the management hierarchy for decision-making
  • Daily behavior is primarily motivated by high-level vision and strategy vs. daily behavior is primarily driven by policy and procedure

Observations about the structure of the organization – open vs. closed

  • The structure is mainly purpose and issue-based vs. the structure is fairly bureaucratic and mainly function-based
  • Decision-making is based on knowledge and expertise vs. Decision-making is based on power and status
  • Role descriptions are flexible and people self-determine their career path vs. detailed role descriptions and clear rules for promotions and advancement
  • Hierarchies tend to be flat and job-titles are fairly unimportant vs. a complex, many-tiered organization with emphasis on specific job titles

During your analysis you will rarely find a client who expresses culture in only an open or a closed way, but you will be able to see markers that give you an overall idea what you are dealing with.

Keep in mind that neither an open or a closed culture are inherently good or bad as long as they are the best fit for the function the organization or a group within the organization has to perform: if a team works regularly under hazardous conditions where strict rules and protocols need to be followed to ensure every team member’s safety it should adopt a more closed style of organization since the ad-hoc style of behavior typically associated with an open culture could endanger people’s lives.

As a change manager reserve judgment during your observations, seek to understand what the organization wishes to achieve and then determine with your client which aspects of their culture currently present obstacles to the proposed change and which ones could be used as levers to drive change – remember: “Form follows Function”!