Maybe you’ve heard the quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast” meaning that a strategy is only as good as the culture’s willingness and capacity to implement it. The company’s culture can be thought of as how things get done here. It has the power to make or break whatever strategic plans you and your company have set yourself up to follow.
One way to decompose an organization’s culture is to look at Edgar Schein’s three levels of culture:
- What is observable—This includes artifacts, behaviours, and interactions between people. Basically, everything we could record if we sat in a corner and simply observed people working. For example, we notice that we have a “fast-paced dynamic” culture of speaking fast and interrupting each other.
- What is valued and believed to be true—This includes ideals, aspirations, and rationalizations. If we were to observe people working, we might ask what these people must value and believe in order for them to behave as they do. In other words, what makes the observable make sense? For example, we interrupt each other and speak fast because we value speed and efficiency.
- What is assumed and taken for granted—This includes unconscious biases and beliefs. Being out of awareness, these assumptions can only be discovered by asking what gives sense to the values and beliefs. In other words, what do we seem to implicitly agree on without talking about it? For example, we must believe that time is wasted if we slow down and hear each other out.
Related post : Self-Organization is not “Laissez-Faire”
Why does this matter? If your strategy involves activities that require your organization to become more reflective and engage in deeper collective learning processes, your “fast-paced dynamic culture” will have a hard time because it will act according to its culture, i.e. the implicit collective assumption that time is wasted if we slow down and hear each other out.
So if culture eats strategy, how does organizational design eat culture?
Three types of organizational designs
Socio-technical systems (STS) is an approach to complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces. This interaction is partly linear (predictable) and partly nonlinear (complex, unpredictable) and will not create successful organizational performance unless there is a joint optimization of technical performance and quality in people’s work lives.
STS has discovered three distinct types of organizational design principles based on what is assumed and taken for granted (Schein’s third level of culture) about how the relationships between people, tasks, and responsibility—including power, authority, and control—should be structured in organizations.
The principles are not designs in and of themselves, but will produce structures with profound and predictable effects on the people who work within them, regardless of their personalities.
First design principle: Redundancy of people
This design principle assumes that organizational flexibility comes from having “redundancy of people”, i.e. having access to a large pool of “workers” who are skilled to perform certain tasks within the organization. It is believed that people cannot be (fully) trusted and must therefore be held individually accountable.
The observable outcome of this thinking is a structure where responsibility for control and coordination is located one level above where work is actually performed.
The classic example is a hierarchical bureaucracy; the organization as a “machine” with various layers of management “operating” the machine and moving parts (people) around the machine as well as in and out of the machine (hiring and firing).
Second design principle: Redundancy of functions
The “redundancy of functions” principle assumes that people can learn to perform many functions within the organization (including how to manage themselves). It is believed that people can be trusted to hold themselves and each other accountable.
This thinking translates into structures where responsibility for control and coordination is located at the level where work is actually performed.
This principle creates democratic self-managing organizations where management is an integrated team function, not a position. As mentioned above, this is a description of a design principle, not of a design itself. There are many different variations of self-managing organizations just as there are many variations of hierarchical bureaucracies.
No design principle: Laissez-faire
As a design principle, laissez-faire essentially assumes that organizational flexibility comes from freedom of no design, no limiting structure. It is a form of “redundancy of personal freedom”. It has no coherent belief around trust.
Laissez-faire can create all kinds of formal, informal, and random structures where responsibility for control and coordination will be undefined or located at various locations.
Classic examples of laissez-faire organizations are universities where employees traditionally are given freedom to pursue their passions without much consideration for how to control and coordinate work across the organization.
By tracing our organization’s culture back to the implicit beliefs and unconscious assumptions we have about people, relationships, and communication, we can see how these drive how things get done here. If we are to influence our culture, we must become aware of these assumptions and make them explicitly part of our conversations.
Also, how we organize ourselves, our very organizational structure, and design is driven by the design principle we are using will shape how we think our organizations should be structured in terms of people, tasks, authority, responsibility and control. In this sense, “organizational design eats culture” because our culture is intrinsically interwoven with the organizational structure we favour.
Can you recognize the dominant design principle in your organization?
How does your organizational design influence people’s behaviour?
How does the design help and hinder your desired culture?