Organizational Culture – What it is and how you might assess it

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“Culture eats strategy for lunch.” – Peter Drucker

Organizational culture is a term that widely receives attention, yet one that may not be completely understood by many. This blog addresses the much talked about idea of culture and explains what culture is to organizations. It will help you start to think about your organization’s culture, and how you might go about maintaining or changing that culture.

As a primer, here is what organizational culture is according to a few experts:

  • A culture reflects the collective wisdom, which comes from lessons learned as people adapt and survive together over time.
  • Try as you might to look to the future, the knowledge embedded in culture is always yesterday’s knowledge. It was in fact developed to meet challenges of the past. The question we must consider next then, is how we should adapt the principles of the past to address the problems of the future.
  • How should we go about the delicate task of relegating obsolete practices of the past ‘corporate museum’, so they do not grow into obstacles that hold us back?
  • Culture is the game, it is not a by-product.
  • “‘It’s all about culture’, I could leave our strategy on an airplane seat and have a competitor read it and it would not make any difference.” – John Stumpf, CEO, Wells Fargo Bank
  • An organization is the collective capacity of its people to create value.

The concept is that the culture is what counts most. As culture guru Edgar Schein would say, “Either you manage the culture, or it manages you”.

Now that we know what culture is, let’s look at what should be included in an organization’s culture. Below are three different, yet practical, versions of what culture is comprised of:


Traditional Components of Culture Harvard Business Review’s  Six Components of Great Corporate Culture (May 2013)

Edgar Schein’s Three Levels of Culture

  1. Creating an organization’s mission and direction;
  2. Building a high level of adaptability and flexibility;
  3. Nurturing the involvement and engagement of your people;
  4. Providing consistency that is strongly rooted in a set of core values.










  1. Vision – a great culture starts with a vision or a mission statement;
  2. Values – are at the core of an organization’s culture;
  3. Practices – values are of little worth if they are not enshrined in the company’s practices;
  4. People – no company can build a corporate culture without people who either share its core values or share a willingness and ability to embrace those values;
  5. Narrative – the ability to unearth history and craft it into a narrative is a core element of culture;
  6. Place – such as Pixar’s huge open atrium, and other organizations’ unique environments.


  1. Basic underlying assumptions that lie at the root of culture and are “unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings;
  2. Espoused values which are derived from the basic underlying assumptions and are “the espoused justifications of strategies, goals and philosophies”;
  3. Finally, at the top level are “artifacts”, defined as “visible, yet hard to decipher organizational structures and processes.” The metaphor here is the iceberg with the least potent 10% visible.





Considering the chart above, you now need to think about culture in terms of your own organization. What is your culture and how do you think you are managing the factors above? Or, are they managing your organization as you stand on the sidelines? What is the assessment of what your culture is comprised of today?  What would you like your culture to be comprised of in the future? Our provocation in this blog is to get you involved in understanding your present culture and in crafting your future culture.

In some organizations we have worked with, creating a best practice management layer is needed to attain the desired organizational culture. To share what Henry Mintzberg and a former boss of mine believes, broadly stated “if your managers are great, your whole organization is great”. After all, we know that people often leave their managers rather than their organizations. In our individual consulting practice over the years, we have done several development exercises, with both leadership and management layers of the organization, which allow the organization to more consciously, craft its culture, and its day-to-day management values.

As you begin the new year, this is a great time to think about how your culture is affecting your organization’s success as a whole, and whether or not any extra action needs to be taken…

Here to help,


Recommended reading list:

  • Guerra, Francesco “Wells Fargo Cracks the Whip”. Financial Times, August 24, 2008.
  • Gerstner, Louis V., Jr. Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? New York, Harper Collins, 2002.
  • Schein, Edgar H. The Corporate Culture Survival Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
  • Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture Change and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985.
  • Denison, D. Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations – Aligning Culture and Strategy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

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