If you want to understand your own culture, spend some time in someone else’s


Almost everywhere I go at the moment someone is trying to change their organisation’s culture. “We are striving for; a learning culture, a feedback culture, a continuous improvement culture, a client focused culture, a listening culture, a culture vulture, blah blah blah.”

A while ago I heard some good advice from Fons Trompenaars at Academi Wales Summer School, “If you want to understand your own culture, you need to spend some time in someone else’s culture”.

Fons illustrated this with is own experience of living in the USA. During this time he realised ‘just how Dutch I was’. I’m sure this didn’t involve Fons clutching an Edam Cheese and wearing wooden clogs on the streets of Boston, but you get the point.

Some observations on the advice from Fons:

  • Before trying to change your culture, you should try to understand what it’s like now.
  • Some of the cultural change activity I’ve seen has been based on huge assumptions.
  • Different experiences will help you understand what your culture is like.
  • It might also help you to work out what you want your new culture to be.
  • Do you want a better version of what currently exists or something completely different?
  • You might also gain an understand what happens in other organisations that gives them their distinct culture.

I do acknowledge that culture is a difficult thing to accurately describe. However, I also think that more can usually be done to understand where you are now. To paraphrase the advice from Fons, ‘go and experience something different to really know yourself’.

My experiences of other organisations had taught me a lot.
One of my most revealing experiences happened while working on a partnership project. One day I asked what was the purpose of the big grey safe bolted to the pillar in the middle of the office?

None of the 20 people in the room knew. Not even the bloke who had been there 25 years and used to sleep away his afternoons behind a screen of potted plants. Nobody had ever thought to ask the question…

That incident said something to me about the culture of that organisation. The sense of empowerment, compliance with the rules and the lack of an enquiring mindset of people in that organisation.

By comparison, in one place I used to work, my colleagues would have opened the safe with a crowbar and hacksaw. Just to find out. They were an inquisitive bunch.

How do you test culture?
If you are going to try a different culture make sure you observe things carefully. Try out a few of these little exercises:

  • How do you organise a working lunch for some visitors, service users or clients?
  • How do you get a small idea to improve something implemented?
  • How do you get to speak to the head of the organisation, face to face?
  • How do you get a letter sent out, committee report approved or blog post published?
  • Do something wrong and see what happens.

This is not a comprehensive list, but I reckon that if you have a go at a few of these activities, you will gain you a fair idea about the culture of the organisation you are visiting, and yours.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Lots of cultural change is based on assumptions, about the existing culture. It’s worth finding out if those assumptions are correct.
  2. If you want to understand your own organisations culture, try spending time in someone else’s culture.
  3. And while you’re there, carefully observe and compare how a few mundane tasks are carried out in each organisation.

Linked Posts:
Back to the floor. http://whatsthepont.com/2013/05/29/if-i-ruled-the-world-all-public-sector-senior-managers-would-do-a-secondment-in-the-community-by-jargonautical/

Ricoh,Telford. The best continuous improvement culture I’ve seen. http://whatsthepont.com/2012/02/23/employee-engagement-kaizen-passion-in-the-west-midlands-ricoh-telford-to-be-exact/.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

4 Responses

  1. Chris Bolton

    I had an email from Hazel earlier.
    She’s started on the ‘day in the work of’ visits.
    Message ha gone out to all staff, several teams have volunteered to take part.
    Plans are in place for tweeting & blogging to share the knowledge.
    More on this next week.

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