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Aligning Culture, Leadership, Strategy and Purpose - Part 2: Culture

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

“The only thing of real importance leaders do is to create and manage culture” (Edgar Schein) (4).

Defining what culture is and describing an organisation’s culture seems remarkably elusive.

Let’s start with the ‘posh’ definition from Denison: “ the underlying values, beliefs and principles that serve as the foundation for an organization’s management system as well as the set of management practices and behaviours that both exemplify and reinforce those basic principles “

Schein brings a somewhat different but related tangent with: “the pattern of shared basic assumption (invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relationship to those problems.”

Personally, I prefer the much more mundane offering from Balogun and Johnson which I have used for the last 3+ decades: “the way we do things around here.”

Whichever definition you prefer, the point to grasp is that culture is the default position for how things get done: so anything that requires actions or behaviours that are contrary to this are likely to be ignored, undermined or perverted because they just don’t fit.

This was exemplified by the world-renowned management consultant, Peter Drucker in his famous quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. To be clear, this quote needs to be kept in context: he was not saying that strategy was unimportant. The key point being made is that for a strategy to succeed, it has to be sympathetic with the culture of the organisation.

The key learning is that alignment of strategy and culture is required for overall success.

That is; coupling a well thought-through strategy with a clear and empowering culture is a recipe for improving the odds of nurturing a successful organisation.

Experience says that it is much easier to change strategy than it is to change organisational culture. The latter may be easier to achieve in newer, smaller organisations as re-orienting the way people do things round here has less history. We can relate it to how adaptable young children are to their changing circumstances, whereas a similar number of, say 50 year olds, who have been in each-others’ presence and working together for the last 30 years, may have a lot more to ‘undo’ and adjust to the newly required way of working as a result of an external force (e.g. a new strategy in response to a large external change that they have no control over).

An analogy for organisational culture that I find useful is the ‘Lily Pond Model’. A useful description of it attached as an appendix to this insight article.

Our challenge, therefore, is to ensure cultural and strategic alignment.

In terms of culture, that means:

  • describing what we have, and

  • knowing how to change it.

There is a choice of approaches to describing an organisation’s culture, or culture mapping, including Harrison and Handy’s ‘4 frameworks’ or Johnson and Scholes’ ‘Cultural Web’.

[Adapted from: Johnson G, Whittington R, Scholes K, 2012: Fundamentals of Strategy, Pearson Education.]

Please note that it is not (just) a matter of determining factors within each of the 6 named areas but also, importantly, their interactions.

Assuming we have now invested the time and energy to obtain a useful description of the culture that people can relate to (it does need testing to check people agree with the outcome), we can move on to how we go about changing it.

Culture change can be broken down into a classic 5 step (A → B) process:

  1. Analyse culture as it is now (and be honest!). (A) If you have done the culture mapping above, you have done the first step – good start!

  2. Imagine the culture as you want it to be. (B) Starting from your organisation’s strategy, think about how you want your culture to work, if everything was correctly aligned. To make it concrete we often then list the key stakeholders and describe how things will be better for them in the new culture.

  3. Map the differences between the two. (→) Now compare your two cultural maps. Identify the differences between them. Considering your vision, mission and purpose:

    1. What strengths are evident?

    2. What factors work comfortably?

    3. What factors are hindering or misaligned?

    4. Which factors must you change: especially the key few?

    5. Who needs to agree, be informed about, or sign off any changes?

    6. What new manifestations, behaviours, values or even assumptions need nurturing?

  4. Make an action plan. (→) Required to make sure that the culture change actually occurs. This plan must handle:

    1. The key issues to address: to change and reinforce.

    2. Who owns what action – senior commitment to action is non-negotiable.

    3. How you measure and track changes

    4. Explain exactly how this will help deliver strategy and benefit everyone.

    5. Assuming the desired culture is transparent, communicate it ‘ad nauseam’.

  5. Measure differences over time. Essential to check the approach was actually implemented with the desired effect achieved.

    1. Measure over an appropriate timeline.

    2. Be clear about what you measure and why

    3. Adopt culture monitoring on an on-going basis as it is an organic thing and will evolve.

    4. Culture monitoring ensures you can control how things evolve, or at least correct course.

    5. Have you achieved the results you wanted: i.e. was the strategy delivered successfully?

[The article draws on material from]


Understanding Organisations as Complex Systems (1)

The Lily Pond Model (2)

A metaphor for the 3-level model of organisational culture:

  • Level 1: Visible manifestations “flowering” on the surface.

  • Level 2: Values which support the “flowers” on the surface can be seen through the water.

  • Level 3: Hidden root system: basic assumptions & unowned values, nourishing the whole plant.

This metaphor emphasises the dynamic & organic nature of organisational culture. The activity on the surface which is in contact with the atmosphere, like photosynthesis, sends down nourishment to the roots, at the same time the roots, extending deep into the fertile soil, send nutrients up through the stems to the flowers & leaves.

A healthy plant has an extended root system, strong stems & colourful flowers. The whole system is in dynamic equilibrium & resists being tinkered around with. New flowers floating unattached on the surface will wither & die, new stems grafted on must be compatible to “catch”; the soil may need fertilising. The whole system must evolve to survive in a changing environment.

Organisational cultures & individuals within organisational cultures can enrich their interactions by becoming more aware of the three levels of the culture & operating knowingly, within all 3 levels.

Level 1: Visible manifestations of the culture

  • These are the characteristics of an organisation which it is possible to see & hear. They include the physical appearance of offices, the way people dress, the overt signs of status, the things people design & produce as policies, systems, letters, reports, forms - & the overt behaviour & communication of members of the organisation.

  • There is a vast collection of such organisational phenomena. It is possible to observe them but it is relatively difficult to figure out what they mean & how they interrelate, what deeper patterns, if any, they reflect. Limiting one’s work with culture to this level of analysis fails to answer questions about the breadth of the actual criteria that are being used to make decisions.

Level 2: Values

  • Values are the beliefs people hold about the way to go about things in the organisation. One way of doing things is valued over another because in the past it has solved some organisational problem: e.g. internal functioning, or a response to environmental demands. The value “It is best to communicate through the chain of command” is commonly found in the civil service.

  • People are usually reasonably aware of and can articulate these values – joining members of the organisation may well be taught the values formally or informally.

  • This value level includes the espoused values of an organisation: i.e. the values which may be written into company charters & may correspond to what people say happens or may want to happen. Such espoused values may or may not bear much relation to what people actually do.

Level 3: Basic underlying assumptions & unowned values

  • This level includes some actual (but unowned) values of the organisation (i.e. what actually happens as opposed to what people say may happen or may want to happen). Some gap between espoused & actual values is inevitable but too large a gap between espoused & actual values generates cynicism & disillusionment.

  • This level also includes basic underlying assumptions which are taken for granted & undebated in the culture. They may arise form organisational values that were originally open to debate. These values were seen to work so they lost their subjective feel & became facts of life that are now assumed to be essentially “right”. People lose a sense that certain ways of responding to situations may be one choice amongst many possibilities. They assume that their behaviour reflects an accurate picture of reality that behaviour based on any other premise or value system is almost inconceivable. This third level of organisational culture is elusive since the assumptions are, by definition, hidden.

Whatever facet of the informal organisation one focuses, on, however, there is one property common to them all – they are all aspects of the behaviour of a shifting set of small groups of people that are self-organising. How the informal organisation actually works, whether its consequences help or hinder the organisation, all depend upon the behaviour of people in small groups. Ultimately, whether an organisation is able to change, innovate and develop new strategic directions, and what changes, innovations and new strategic directions it develops, therefore all depend upon how the network of informal small groups of people in the organisation behaves”. (Stacey, 1993 pp 350-351) (3)


(1) Adapted from Jenny Mackewn, Ed Schein and others

(2) Schein, E.H. (2004) Organisational culture and leadership. 3rd edn. San Francisco CA: Jossey Bass

(3) Stacey, R. D. (1993) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics. UK: Pitman

(4) Kuppler, T (2015): Edgar Schein on Culture. Leadership and Change Magazine

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