Organization & Leadership Consulting

Ten Culture-Embedding Mechanisms (Part 4 of 4)

Repeat after me: “My organization’s culture is an outcome of what we collectively believe about the organization and how we behave alongside each other as a result of those beliefs.” 

So, what do you believe about your organization? Over the course of this blog and three prior, brief introductions to ten culture-embedding mechanisms provided you with a set of levers with which to intentionally shift and set your culture into what you need it to be.

Set #3: The Nearly Invisible Mechanisms (number two of two)

  • Basic Assumptions – deeply held beliefs about how to solve problems and leverage opportunities. 

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” True or False?

“Well, it depends.” True or False?

When it comes to organizational culture, the answer is “Both”. Culture is a human ecosystem. Some aspects of it will be healthy and thriving. Other areas may be compromised or contaminated. An automobile engine is a complex machine. However, if the spark plugs are worn out, you don’t replace the entire engine. If it’s working as it is designed to work and getting the results it was designed to get, there is no need to fix it. But it must be maintained.

To maintain something well, you need to know how it works and why it works that way. The same goes for people and for organizational culture. If your culture is working well, do you know what allows for or causes it to work well? Can you identify and nurture those factors or are they operating at an almost invisible level? If it’s the latter, those factors might be what in organization development jargon is known as “basic assumptions”.

Assumptions are mental and emotional shortcuts. Shortcuts can be of immense value. They may have proven that value with consistency and over time. That proof may be so abundantly evident there is no longer a need to consider another approach. Right? 

When an assumption gets entrenched (embedded?) to the depth described above, it has become a “basic” starting point. If we start at the same place every time, the view rarely changes. If we take the same shortcuts every time, we remain unaware of what has been changing along alternative routes. We miss out. We get into ruts. We eventually end up boxed in by the changes occurring around us. 

Some basic assumptions are worth keeping; some cause more harm than good or prevent a better good from emerging. How can you tell the difference? How can you even identify a basic assumption? First, get a group of humble, insightful, critical thinkers together. Then…

  1. Tell stories about how your organization (team, department, etc.) has historically and effectively solved problems. Listen for the common threads. Follow those threads back to the earliest, most challenging problems. What emerges as the assumed essential(s) when it comes to how problems get solved in your organization? 
  2. Do the same thing for opportunities that have been successfully leveraged.
  3. While you’re at it, pay attention to the nuances that reveal outcomes and decisions that “proved” a particular approach did not work (and therefore became an assumed non-approach). Basic Assumptions about what does not work are also real.
  4. Once you’ve identified whatever you feel is an actual Basic Assumption, discuss the aspects of it that are worth keeping and elevating to conscious awareness and intentional application. You might want to refine them, codify them, and train your people in them, seeking their input and refining them as you go.
  5. Apply #4 to those aspects that are no longer helpful, are harmful, and/or are shaping your organizational culture in a way you do not want it shaped. 
  6. While doing steps 1-5, make sure one or more people in the group are also listening and watching for which assumptions are at work even during the group’s exploration of Basic Assumptions. You will be amazed at how many intellectual and emotional shortcuts work their way (or are allowed their way) into conversations and dialogue about topics such as those above.

When it comes to identifying and articulating Basic Assumptions, the process is simple but not easy. Because it is simple, many consider it pointless. Because it is not easy, many move on to actions that have already proven their value. See the irony?


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