Corporate Culture Is a Mystery, Not A Puzzle

Eleven Things to Consider before We Start a Transformation

Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers


Between 2008 and 2015, Volkswagen’s engineering teams intentionally and repeatedly tampered with the emissions of car engines in laboratory tests. On the road, the vehicles emitted up to forty times more nitrogen oxides. A pithy observation that seems to contain a general truth comes to mind:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. (quote from unknown)

Agile influencers go one step further when they say that if we get the culture right, pretty much any process will do. Wouldn’t it be handy if we could rustle up corporate culture by first doing an assessment of the current culture, then setting a vision, making a roadmap, and finally implementing the new culture? Unfortunately, this notion is based on the assumption that corporate culture is a puzzle, not a mystery. Here are eleven things to consider before we start to rustle:

¹⁄ Corporate culture is cohesive. By nature, it’s impossible to reduce our culture to its constituent bits. Behaviors, organization, norms, knowledge, beliefs, rules, traditions, abilities, and habits — the concept of culture encompasses a multitude of simultaneous properties. Together, they are as cohesive as the yeast and flour in baked bread, the bees and flowers in nature, or the cells and bacteria in the human body. We cannot alter one property without affecting others.

²⁄ Corporate culture is path-dependent. Everything that has ever happened potentially influences the future. Corporate culture is not a state machine that can be reset. Every controversial decision, every game changer, and every useful lesson learned is forever engraved in the collective mind.

³⁄ Corporate culture cannot be programmed into employees’ minds. The interactions between people in our organization reshape our corporate culture. Although these interactions are influenced by who we are, the idea that we can control them by first fixing the employees’ mindset might be even more reductionistic than Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck.

⁴⁄ Corporate culture is heterogeneous. In a large organization, our tasks, the way we are organized, and our abilities vary. For example, the research department, CxO team, and service staff benefit from different types of culture. Unfortunately, corporate culture can be neither uniform nor centrally defined. Cultural diversity is a key property for success.

⁵⁄ Corporate culture is emergent. Culture unfolds gradually in a way that no one can fully predict. Likewise, corporate culture is ever-changing, whether we want it to be or not. Like the shape of water in a raging flood, the exact same corporate culture will never appear twice.

⁶⁄ Corporate culture is difficult to assess from the inside. It’s almost impossible to review our own corporate culture, since we’re biased. As individual employees, our field of view is limited. In addition, we might also have political interests. It doesn’t matter if we conduct the assessment top-down or bottom-up. An alternative might be to engage trained anthropologists.

⁷⁄ Corporate culture has a unique fit. Even if a corporate culture copying machine existed, culture from one organization wouldn’t fit in another. Each enterprise consists of people with unique identities, motives, and experiences. Our employees, our types of tasks, and the ecosystem we live in are unlike those of the successful company next door. It’s a mistake to believe that their culture would be beneficial for us. We must evolve our own.

⁸⁄ Corporate culture is tacit knowledge. How can we document norms, behaviors, knowledge, and traditions in an unambiguous way? On the one hand, we want our desired culture to diffuse throughout our organization. On the other hand, we don’t want to overgeneralize. When we force rules and principles out of context, bureaucracy might turn up. Diffusing tacit knowledge isn’t impossible, but it’s a very tough task.

⁹⁄ Corporate culture is usually neither good nor bad. What is good in the short term may be bad in the long term. What is good for a new team may be bad for a high-performing team. What is good in an explorative project may be bad in an exploitative project. Culture has consequences, there’s no doubt about that. However, we must be careful about positioning it on a good–bad scale.

¹⁰⁄ Corporate culture is both/and. If our values ​​are, for example, sharing, caring, and daring — have we even opted out of something? The Agile Manifesto puts two positive things next to each other and prioritizes one. Furthermore, with both/and thinking, we consider in what context one is better than the other and vice versa. Presenting positively connoted words next to negative ones tend to be a rabbit hole of platitudes.

¹¹⁄ Corporate Culture is a Mystery, Not a Puzzle. Puzzles have exactly one solution (unless the dog has eaten one of the puzzle pieces). Mysteries are trickier. They never stop unfolding. Cause and effect don’t always walk hand in hand. What part of Volkswagen’s corporate culture made employees behave the way they did, and for so long? How will the emission scandal affect their future culture?

Where we end up depends, among other things, on the never-ending interactions between people inside and outside our company. In seeking to influence corporate culture, we must acknowledge that the way individuals behave is a direct result of the constraints operating on them.

An alternative to planning and implementing an imagined culture is to continuously examine and adjust the constraints we live with. For example, rather than broadcasting the message that our teams are now self-managing, we might empower them to manage their own budget, their recruiting and salary setting, or their technology setup.

That is, if we really want self-managing teams in our corporate culture.

Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

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Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers

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