Shared Assumptions About Means to Achieve Goals: Structure, Systems, and Processes

Some of the most important and most invisible elements of an organiza­tional culture are the shared basic assumptions about “how things should be done, how the mission is to be achieved, and how goals are to be met.” As indicated before, leaders usually impose structure, systems, and processes, which, if successful, become shared parts of the culture. And once processes have become taken for granted, they become the elements of the culture that may be the hardest to change.

The processes a group adopts reflect not only the preferences of the founders and leaders but also the macroculture in which it exists. A striking example occurred in our MIT Sloan Fellows Program where young, high- potential managers who came for a full year master’s degree program were given an exercise to build an organization. Groups of about fifteen were each made into a “company that was to produce two-1 ine jingles to be put on greeting cards for birthdays and anniversaries.” The products were “bought” by the exercise administrators, and the companies were measured on their output. Without fail every group immediately chose some executives, a sales manager, a marketing manager, proofreaders, supervisors, and, finally, a cou­ple of writers. Only upon much reflection and analysis did it occur to any group that the best way to win was to have fifteen writers. They all automati­cally fell into the typical hierarchical and functionally differentiated struc­ture that mirrored the national and organizational cultures they came from.

The tendency to fall back on what we already know does facilitate get­ting consensus quickly on the means by which goals will be met. Such consensus is important because the means to be used have to do with day- to-day behavior and coordinated action. People can have ambiguous goals, but for anything to happen, they must agree on how to structure the organi­zation, and how to design, finance, build, and sell the products or services. From the particular pattern of these agreements will emerge not only the “style” of the organization but also the basic design of tasks, division of labor, reporting and accountability structure, reward and incentive systems, control systems, and information systems.

The skills, technology, and knowledge that a group acquires in its effort to cope with its environment then also become part of its culture if there is consensus on what those skills are and how to use them. For example, in his study of several companies that made the world’s best flutes, Cook and Yanow (1993) show that for generations the craftsmen were able to pro­duce flutes that artists would recognize immediately as having been made by a particular company, but neither management nor the craftsmen could describe exactly what they had done to make them so recognizable. It was embedded in the processes of manufacturing and reflected a set of skills that could be passed on for generations through an apprentice system, yet was not formally identifiable.

In evolving the means by which the group will accomplish its goals, many of the internal issues that the group must deal with get partially set­tled. The external problem of division of labor structures who gets to know whom and who is in authority. The work system of the group defines its boundaries and its rules for membership. The particular beliefs and tal­ents of the founders and leaders of the group determine which functions become dominant as the group evolves. For example, engineers founding companies based on their inventions create very different kinds of inter­nal structures than venture capitalists creating organizations by putting technical and marketing talent under the direction of financially driven or marketing-oriented leaders.

In Ciba-Geigy the founders believed that solutions to problems result from hard thought, scientific research, and careful checking of that research in the marketplace. From the beginning this company had clearly defined research roles and distinguished them sharply from managerial roles. The norm had developed that a person must become an expert in his or her own area, to the point where he or she knows more about that area than anyone else—a norm clearly derived from some of the assumptions of the scientific model on which the company operated. Historically, this link to the culture of science may have accounted, in part, for the assumption that people ’s areas of expertise were their own property or turf and the feeling that it might be considered insulting to be given advice in that area. The defined turf included the person’s subordinates, budget, physical space, and all other resources that were allocated to that person. This level of felt autonomy and the formal relationships that developed among group members then became their means of getting work done. The high degree of reliance on hierarchi­cal authority also derived from the core technology in which Ciba-Geigy was working and from the Swiss German macroculture. Chemistry and chemical engineering are fairly precise hierarchical fields in which being an experienced expert helps to prevent serious accidents or explosions.

In DEC, on the other hand, a norm developed that the only turf some­one really owned is his or her accountability for certain tasks and accom­plishments. Budget, physical space, subordinates, and other resources were really seen as common organizational property over which an individual had only influence. Others in the organization could try to influence the accountable manager or his or her subordinates, but there were no formal boundaries or “walls.” Physical space also was viewed as common territory, and “sharing” of knowledge was highly valued. Whereas in Ciba-Geigy to give ideas to another was considered threatening, in DEC it was consid­ered mandatory to survival. The core technology of electrical engineering and circuit design lent itself much more to experimentation and individual innovation in that mistakes were a waste of time and resources but not physically threatening.

In DEC, lack of consensus on who “owned” what could be a major source of conflict. For example, at one time in DEC ’s history, there was a lack of consensus on the rules for obtaining key engineering services, such as drafting and the use of the model-building shop. Some engineers believed that work would be done in the order in which it was submit­ted; others believed that it would be done according to the importance of the work, and they often persuaded the service manager to break into the queue to give their work priority. This aroused great anger on the part of those who were waiting their turn patiently, and, as might be expected, it made the service managers very anxious.

The whole engineering group eventually had to get together to estab­lish a common set of policies, which, interestingly enough, reinforced the existing ambiguous pattern and legitimized it. Both engineering and service managers were to do the “sensible” thing, and, if they could not figure out what that was, they were to refer the matter to the next higher level of management for resolution. The policy discussion ended up reinforcing the assumption that because no one is smart enough to have a “formula” for how to do things, people should use their intelligence and common sense at all times. Ambiguity was considered to be a reality that must be lived with and managed “ sensibly. ”

In summary, as cultural assumptions form around the means by which goals are to be accomplished, they will inevitably involve the internal issues of status and identity, thus highlighting the complexity of both the analysis of means and the issues surrounding efforts to change how an organiza­tion accomplishes its goals. Consensus on the means to be used creates the behavioral regularities and many of the artifacts that eventually come to be identified as the visible manifestations of the culture. After these regulari­ties and patterns are in place, they become a source of stability for members and are, therefore, strongly adhered to.

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

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