A Reflection on Culture


varanasiThrough the books I’ve recently read I’ve come to see culture as an output, a result or an emergent property of a system. Furthermore, just like all outputs, it cannot be managed directly, as Matthew E. May points out in his post “To Change A Culture, Change The System.” The only way to manage outputs is to change the inputs to the system and/or change the system.

I’ve come to believe that we’re wired to focus on outputs and sort good from bad. And, why not? For most of our evolution we’ve never had any control of our environment. We’ve been a part of the system. In that context it’s perfectly natural for us to comment on culture and sort it into good or bad. However, just as you can’t inspect quality into a product as Harold S. Dodge pointed out, you can’t improve culture by calling out its positive or negative attributes.

In the case of the modern organization, perhaps you can select the type of people to minimize cultural diversity. (Cultural diversity here refers to mindset, drive, focus, etc.) But in my experience, with the way that process (i.e. interviews) works right now, it amounts to shots in the dark. Better to setup a system that is robust to the variation in its human resource to yield a cohesive culture.

System design requires designers (leaders) who have a vision for the system. They must understand the context for their system and then design their system to produce the desired result. These are all skills that can be learned, but so few bother. It’s hard work. There’s no instant pudding. But who’s got the time?

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