Rapid Deciphering-A Multistep Group Process

The process that I will describe is designed to give the leaders of a change process a rapid way of deciphering elements of their own culture so that they can assess its relevance to their change program. I have often been asked to design a survey or do an interview program in this context and have always argued that this is neither necessary nor desirable. The group interview process described next is both faster and more valid because an interactive process gets to shared assumptions more quickly. This process is most useful in the context of a change program in which the change goals have already been made explicit so that the culture can be assessed as a poten­tial aid or hindrance to the change program (Schein, 2009b).Without the change focus, this process can seem boring and pointless.

If I am asked to do a culture assessment, I always ask, “Why do you want to do this?” “What problem are you trying to solve?” “What do you mean by culture, and why do you think a culture assessment would be useful.” The answers typically reveal some change agenda that the client has, and it is important to get the client to specify clearly what that change agenda is. After the client has identified in concrete terms what the desired “new way of working” is, the culture assessment can then be done rapidly (Schein, 2009b).

The essence of the assessment process is to bring together one or more representative groups in the organization, provide them a model of how to think about organizational culture and subcultures, and then ask them to identify the main artifacts, the espoused values, and the shared tacit assumptions, with an outsider playing the role of facilitator, documenter, and, when necessary, gadfly and question asker. A member of the organiza­tion in a leader role can be the facilitator, as long as it is not his or her own department and as long as he or she has an understanding of how culture works. This kind of assessment is based on several key assumptions:

  • Culture is a set of shared assumptions; hence, obtaining the initial data in a group setting is more appropriate and valid than conducting indi­vidual interviews.
  • The contextual meaning of cultural assumptions can only be fully understood by members of the culture; hence, creating a vehicle for their understanding is more important than for the researcher or consul­tant to obtain that understanding.
  • Not all parts of a culture are relevant to any given issue the organization may be facing; hence, attempting to study an entire culture in all of its facets is not only impractical but also usually inappropriate.
  • Insiders are capable of understanding and making explicit the shared tacit assumptions that make up the culture, but they need outsider help in this process. The helper/consultant should therefore operate pri­marily from a process-consulting model and should avoid, as much as possible, becoming an expert on the content of any given group’s culture (Schein, 1999a, 2009a).
  • Some cultural assumptions will be perceived as helping the organiza­tion to achieve its change goals or resolving its current issues, while others will be perceived as constraints or barriers; hence it is important for the group members to have a process that allows them to sort cul­tural assumptions into both of these categories.
  • Changes in organizational practices to solve the problems that initiated the culture assessment can usually be achieved by building on existing assump­tions; that is, the culture-deciphering process often reveals that new practices not only can be derived from the existing culture, but should
  • If changes in the culture are discovered to be necessary, those changes will rarely involve the entire culture; it will almost always be a matter of changing one or two assumptions. Only rarely does the basic paradigm have to change, but if it does, the organization faces a multiyear major change process.

1. Step One: Obtaining Leadership Commitment

Deciphering cultural assumptions and evaluating their relevance to some organizational change program must be viewed as a major intervention in the organization’s life and, therefore, must only be undertaken with the full understanding and consent of the formal leaders of the organization. This means not only probing why the leaders in an organization want to do this assessment but also fully describing the process and its potential consequences to obtain their full commitment to the group meetings that will be involved.

2. Step Two: Selecting Groups for Self-Assessment

The next step is for the facilitator to work with the formal leaders to determine how best to select some groups representative of the corporate culture. The criteria for selection usually depend on the concrete nature of the problem to be solved. Groups can either be homogeneous with respect to a given department or rank level or made deliberately heteroge­neous by selecting diagonal slices from the organization. The group can be as small as three and as large as thirty. If important subcultures are believed to be operating, the process can be repeated with several different groups or samples of members can be brought in from different groups in order to test, in the meetings, whether the assumed differences exist.

The composition of the group is further determined by the client lead­ers ’ perceptions of the level of trust and openness in the organization, especially in regard to deciding whether senior people who might inhibit the discussion should be present. On the one hand, it is desirable to have a fairly open discussion, which might mean not mixing rank levels. On the other hand, it is critical to determine the extent to which the assump­tions that eventually come out in the group meetings are shared across hierarchical levels, which argues for mixed rank groups. Because the level of trust and openness across various boundaries is itself a cultural char­acteristic, it is best to start with a heterogeneous group and let the group experience the extent to which certain areas of communication are or are not inhibited by the presence of others. Because authority relationships and level of intimacy are primary cultural dimensions, the process of group selection with insiders will itself reveal some important elements of the culture. The consultant/facilitator should use his or her interactions with members of the client system as diagnostic data throughout this planning process.

After groups have been chosen, the formal leader should inform the groups of the purpose of the meetings, review his or her conversations with the facilitator, and explain the basis on which people were chosen to attend. Just being summoned to a meeting to do a culture assessment is too vague. The participants must know what change problems are being worked on, and they must become aware that the leaders are committed to the assessment process. The leader should emphasize that openness and candor are needed, and that culture is not good or bad.

3. Step Three: Selecting an Appropriate Setting for the Group Self-Assessment

The group meeting should stimulate perceptions, thoughts, and feelings that are ordinarily implicit. The room in which the meeting is to be held must therefore be comfortable, allow people to sit in a circular format, and permit the hanging of many sheets of flip chart paper on which cultural elements will be written. In addition there should be available a set of breakout rooms in which subgroups can meet, especially if the basic group is larger than fifteen or so participants.

4. Step Four: Explaining the Purpose of the Group Meeting (15 mins.)

The meeting should start with a statement of the purpose of the meeting by someone from the organization who is perceived to be in a leadership or authority role, so that openness of response is encouraged. The organizational change problem should be clearly stated and written down, allowing for questions and discussion. The purpose of this step is not only to be clear as to why this meeting is being held but also to begin to get the group involved in the process.

The insider then introduces the process consultant as the “facilitator who will help us to conduct an assessment of how our organization’s culture will help or constrain us in solving the problem or resolving the issue we have identified.” The process consultant can be an outsider, a member of the organization who is part of a staff group devoted to providing internal consulting services, or even a leader from another department if he or she is familiar with how culture works and is familiar with this group process.

5. Step Five: A Short Lecture on How to Think About Culture (15 mins.)

It is essential for the group to understand that culture manifests itself at the level of artifacts and espoused values, but that the goal is to try to decipher the shared tacit assumptions that lie at a lower level of consciousness. The consultant should, therefore, present the three-level model of assumptions, espoused values, and basic assumptions shown in Chapter Two, and ensure that everyone understands that culture is a learned set of assumptions based on a group’s shared history. It is important for the group to understand that what they are about to assess is a product of their own history and that the culture’s stability rests on the organization’s past success.

6. Step Six: Eliciting Descriptions of the Artifacts (60 mins.)

The process consultant then tells the group that they are going to start by describing the culture through its artifacts. A useful way to begin is to find out who has joined the group most recently and ask that person what it felt like to enter the organization and what she or he noticed most upon entering it. Everything mentioned is written down on a flip chart, and as the pages are filled, they are torn off and hung on the wall so that every­thing remains visible.

I f group members are active in supplying information, the facilita­tor can stay relatively quiet, but if the group needs priming, the facilitator should suggest categories such as dress codes, desired modes of behavior in addressing the boss, the physical layout of the workplace, how time and space are used, what kinds of emotions someone would notice, how people get rewarded and punished, how someone gets ahead in the organization, how decisions are made, how conflicts and disagreements are handled, how work and family life are balanced, and so forth. The facilitator can use the categories reviewed in Chapters Five and Six to ensure that many differ­ent area of how things are done in the organization get discussed, but it is important not to give out such a list before a spontaneous group discussion has occurred because it may bias the group ’s perception of what is impor­tant. The consultant does not know initially what areas of the culture are especially salient and relevant and so should not bias the process of deci­phering by providing a checklist. Noting later what areas do not come out spontaneously can itself be an indicator of cultural characteristics that are important but difficult to talk about.

This process should continue for about one hour or until the group clearly runs dry, and it should produce a long list of artifacts covering all sorts of areas of the group ’s life. Being visually surrounded by the descrip­tion of their own artifacts is a necessary condition for the group to begin to stimulate its own deeper layers of thinking about what assumptions its members share.

7. Step Seven: Identifying Espoused Values (15-30 mins.)

The question that elicits artifacts is “What is going on here?” By contrast, the question that elicits espoused values is “Why are you doing what you are doing?” It is often the case that values will already have been mentioned during the discussion of artifacts so these should be written down on differ­ent pages. To elicit further values, I pick an area of artifacts that is clearly of interest to the group and ask people to articulate the reasons why they do what they do. For example, if they have said that the place is very informal and that there are few status symbols, I ask why. This usually elicits value statements such as “We value problem solving more than formal authority” or “We think that a lot of communication is a good thing” or even “We don’t believe that bosses should have more rights than subordinates.”

As values or beliefs are stated, I check for consensus; if there appears to be consensus, I write down the values or beliefs on the new chart pad. If members disagree, I explore why by asking whether this is a matter of differ­ent subgroups having different values or there is genuine lack of consensus, in which case the item goes on the list with a question mark to remind us to revisit it. I encourage the group to look at all the artifacts they have identified and to figure out as best they can what values seem to be implied. If I see some obvious values that they have not named, I will suggest them as possibilities—but in a spirit of joint inquiry, not as an expert conducting a content analysis of their data. After we have a list of values to look at, we are ready to push on to underlying assumptions.

8. Step Eight: Identifying Shared Underlying Assumptions (15-30 mins.)

The key to getting at the underlying assumptions is to check whether the espoused values that have been identified really explain all of the artifacts or whether things that have been described as going on have clearly not been explained or are in actual conflict with some of the values articulated. For example, the members of a group from Apple Computer conducted some cultural assessments in the 1980s for the purpose of identifying how their rate of growth would impact their organizational structure and needs for physical expansion. On the list of artifacts, they noted that they spend a great deal of time in planning and in documenting the plans, but that the plans usually got overridden by the needs of a here-and -now crisis. They had put planning on their list of espoused values and felt genuinely puzzled and ashamed that they followed through so little on the plans they had made. This raised the whole issue of how time was perceived, and, after some discussion, the group members agreed that they operated from a deeper shared assumption that could best be stated as “Only the present counts.” Once they stated the assumption in this form, they immediately saw on their own artifact list other items that confirmed this and thought of several new artifacts that further reinforced their orientation toward and preoccupation with the immediate present.

The same group identified many different informal activities that mem­bers engaged in, including parties at the end of workdays, celebrations when products were launched, birthday parties for employees, joint travel to recreational areas such as ski resorts, and so on. The value they espoused was that they liked being with each other. But as we pondered the data, it became clear that a deeper assumption was involved, namely, “Business can and should be more than making money; it can and should be fun as well.” Once this assumption was articulated, it immediately led the group to real­ize that a further assumption was operating: “Business not only should be more than just making money; it can and should be socially significant.”

The latter assumption reminded the group members of a whole other set of artifacts concerning the value they put on their products, why they liked some products better than others, why they valued some of their engi­neers more than others, how their founders had articulated their original values, and so on. A whole new issue was raised about the pros and cons of selling to the government and to the defense industries versus continuing to focus on the education sector.

Once assumptions are made conscious, this usually triggers a whole new set of insights and begins to make sense of a whole range of things that previ­ously had not made sense. Sometimes assumptions reconcile what the group may have perceived as value conflicts. For example, in doing this exercise, a group of human resource professionals at an insurance company identified as an important value “becoming more innovative and taking more risks as the environment changes,” but the members could not reconcile this goal with the fact that very little actual innovation was taking place. In pushing deeper to the assumption level, they realized that throughout its history, the company had operated on two very central assumptions about human behavior: (1) People work best when they are given clear rules to cover all situations (among the artifacts the group had listed was a “mile-long shelf of procedure manuals”), and (2) people like immediate feedback and will not obey rules unless rule violation is immediately punished. Once the group stated these tacit assumptions, they realized that those assumptions were driving their behavior far more than the espoused value of innovation and risk taking. Not only was there no real positive incentive for innovating, in fact, it was risky because any false steps would immediately be punished. Another example was the previously cited case of the engineering group at HP that discovered that the espoused values of “teamwork” and “being nice to each other” were overruled by the tacit assumption that individualistic competitive behavior was the way to get things done and get ahead.

As assumptions surface, the facilitator should test for consensus and then write them down on a separate list. This list becomes important as the visible articulation of the cultural essences that have been identified. This phase of the exercise is finished when the group and the facilitator feel that they have identified most of the critical assumption areas, and participants are now clear on what an assumption is.

9. Step Nine: Identifying Cultural Aids and Hindrances (30-60 mins.)

If the group is small enough (fifteen to twenty), it should take this next step together. If the group is larger than twenty, it is best to divide it into two or three subgroups. The task for subgroups depends in part on what the presenting problems were, whether or not subcultures were identified in the large group exercise, and how much time is available. For example, if there was evidence in the large group meeting that there are functional, geographical, occupational, or hierarchical subcultures, the facilitator may want to send off subgroups that reflect those presumed differences and have each subgroup further explore its own assumption set. Or, if the facilitator finds that there is reasonable consensus in the large group on the assump­tions identified, he or she can compose the subgroups randomly, by business unit, or by any other criterion that makes sense given the larger problem or issue that is being addressed.

In any case, the next task is to categorize the assumptions according to whether they will aid or hinder the change process that is being pur­sued. The group needs to review what the “new way of working” is and how the assumptions identified will help or hinder in getting there. It is very important to require the participants to look at assumptions from this dual point of view because of a tendency to see culture only as a constraint and thus put too much emphasis on the assumptions that will hinder. In fact, successful organizational change probably arises more from identifying assumptions that will aid than from changing assumptions that will hinder, but groups initially have a harder time seeing how the culture can be a source of positive help.

10. Step Ten: Decisions on Next Steps (30 mins.)

The purpose of this step is to reach some kind of consensus on what the important shared assumptions are and their implications for what the orga­nization wants to do next. If there have been subgroups meeting, the process starts when the subgroups report their own separate analyses to the full group. If there is a high degree of consensus, the facilitator can go straight into a discussion of implications and next steps. More likely there will be some variations, and possibly disagreements, which will require some fur­ther inquiry and analysis by the total group with the help of the facilitator.

For example, the group may agree that there are strong subculture dif­ferences that must be taken into account. Or some of the assumptions may have to be reexamined to determine whether they reflect an even deeper level that would resolve disagreements. Or the group may come to recog­nize that for various reasons, it does not have many shared assumptions. In each case, the role of the facilitator is to raise questions, force clarification, test perceptions, and in other ways help the group achieve as clear a picture as possible of the assumption set that is driving the group’s day-to-day per­ceptions, feelings, thoughts, and ultimately, behavior.

Once there is some consensus on what the shared assumptions are, the discussion proceeds to the implications of what has been identified. One of the biggest insights at this point comes from seeing how some of the assumptions will aid them, creating the possibility that their energy should go into strengthening those positive assumptions instead of worry­ing about overcoming the constraining ones. If, however, real constraints are identified, the group discussion then has to shift to an analysis of how culture can be managed and what it would take to overcome the identified constraints. At this point a brief further lecture on the material described in Chapters Sixteen and Seventeen may be needed to review some of the culture change mechanisms that are implied, and a new set of groups may be formed to develop a culture change strategy. Typically, this requires, at a minimum, an additional half-day with possibly new groups.

The process described so far can be done in a day or even less. It is not necessary to think of culture assessment as a slow, time-consuming process. It is not only more efficient to work in groups instead of doing individual interviews or surveys but, more importantly, the data are likely to be more valid because the deeper elements of culture only surface interactively and, having been produced in a group context, their validity can be tested imme­diately. Culture is a group phenomenon best assessed in a group context.

But there is an important possible limitation that has to be considered from a researcher’s point of view—the results of the assessment may be completely clear to the insiders and still puzzling to the outsider. If the goal is to help the organization, this is okay. The outsider does not need to fully understand the culture. If, on the other hand, the researcher wants enough clarity to be able to represent the culture to others, additional observa­tional data and group meetings are likely to be necessary.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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