The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Foreground and background

As Ed Schein once explained, “Culture is telling you moment to moment what to do.”

Whenever a problem appears, or an objective is set, it is culture that will be a constant advisor or what to do. It’s the result of culture being in the background. Culture being in the background is an indicator of how accepted it is, and thus how impactful it is on people’s behavior. And according to Ed Schein culture has much more impact on people’s behavior in an organization than personality through its ability to define the rules of behavior.

What’s in the foreground is everything that leads to tensions, either because it has to be achieved or because it is perceived as a problem. The tension can be seen as a description of the relationship between the challenge, problem, or goal and specific elements of the organization’s culture. With the presence of tension, one might remain captured by this tension and not even talk about culture or see it as related to one’s doing.

However, failing to take the time to reflect on the relationship that leads to such tension is the reason why “culture eats strategy for breakfast” as Peter Drucker famously said. Culture remains invisible to people in the organization whenever the focus stays with the foreground and doesn’t consider the background and how culture thus is context to the foreground.

Attending to the tension and learning from it may not even be seen as changing the culture. But it is. Whatever is done to relieve the tension has the potential to become a habit or to transform values. Whatever learning results from actions can enable a conscious choice, thus changing future actions. Reflection helps to determine what element of culture is endangered or needs to be changed. It can be a rule, a value, or any other element of the organization’s culture. Change, however, will only result from one’s actions, its validation by others, and its acceptance as a new way of doing things.

How impactful that change is on culture will depend on the action and its impact.