Culture Really Matters

Posted April 29, 2021 in Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence
Culture Really Matters

[Editor’s note: This article is derived from the book, Happy to Work Here: Improving the Culture of the Workplace, by the six Principals of the Atlantic Systems Guild: Steve McMenamin, Tom DeMarco, Peter Hruschka, Tim Lister, James Robertson, and Suzanne Robertson. The following is excerpted from the introduction, along with details of the first cultural driver described in the book.]

High-performing organizations tend to have similar cultural profiles. That is, the people working in the organization are pleased with the organization and pleased with the quality of their work. Poor-performing organizations also have similar cultural profiles, but these tilt toward the negative end of the cultural spec­trum. Culture influences performance, and performance influences culture. The connections between culture and performance are complex, reciprocal, and anything but obvious. But you need to care about them. The more you care about performance, the more you need to care about culture.

Anyone responsible for a complex team endeavor is aware that the methods in use, the technology, and the work ethic don’t provide a complete expla­nation for why people and teams perform as they do. There is something else at work; that something else is its culture.

You often hear allusions to it: “The culture of this place just didn’t allow us to make that change,” or “It was the culture that lost us some of our best people.” But when asked to explain just what the culture is, or even what the term “workplace culture” really means, most people come up blank.

Books and articles that extol the virtues of an organi­zation tend to feature companies that are models of a wide range of constructive and successful practices. Autopsies on notable failures often find that their subject companies were doing many dysfunctional things all at once. The literature might reasonably lead you to believe that organizations are distributed bimodally: either with lots of good things going on or lots of regrettable policies and practices.

Such analyses may be entertaining, but not obviously useful to those seeking to improve the culture of their own workplaces. It doesn’t take sophisticated analysis to determine that one place is a train wreck, while another is a virtual showcase of best practices with an impressive track record to match. It’s pretty obvious. But very few real-world workplaces exist at either of these extremes. The same is true of their cultures.

Most workplaces are mixtures of good and bad cultural traits. They get some things right but are still bogged down by other, less admirable cultural characteristics. They are not textbook models of anything. They are a messy mix of the constructive and the dysfunctional.

Seeking to achieve good culture and avoiding the bad requires a deeper look at the factors that determine the culture of a workplace.

Getting to Good

First, a definition:

Culture is a set of shared beliefs and resultant observable behaviors.

Shared beliefs are fundamental — they determine behavior. For example, if you believe that the world will end tomorrow, you will behave quite differently than you would if you were confident that the sun would rise tomorrow, and your existence and that of the planet would continue. People in Denmark believe that most other people can be trusted, which causes Danes to behave in a respectful manner toward each other. Compare that to the behavior of people who believe that their fellow humans are vile, untrustworthy, deceitful villains. People who believe that they might be fired soon behave differently than those who believe they are highly valued by the organization.

In our work experience and observations of hundreds of workplaces around the world, we have encountered a variety of behaviors among the people in different workplaces and, most often, have been able to relate these behaviors to underlying shared beliefs within the workplace. Sets of shared beliefs that encourage desirable behaviors1 are what we call cultural drivers. This aggregate of cause and effect is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1 — Each driver of workplace culture comes about because of one or more shared beliefs.  The existence of these beliefs can be deduced from observable behaviors within the workplace.
Figure 1 — Each driver of workplace culture comes about because of one or more shared beliefs. The existence of these beliefs can be deduced from observable behaviors within the workplace.

There are six principal drivers of a healthy workplace culture. It is our expectation that, by under­standing what it is that drives different aspects of workplace culture in general, you will be able to understand the culture at your own organization and, more importantly, change it for the better.

6 Principal Drivers

The six drivers that determine most of a workplace’s culture are set out below:

  1. The perceived value of people and teams. How are people seen in the workplace? Are they seen as indispensable assets to be selected and invested in to further the organization’s true objectives? Or are they viewed more like light bulbs: commodities to be used until they burn out, and then replaced with cheaper ones? Are they seen as bringers of energy, innovation, diversity of thought, and mastery of their craft? Or are they seen as a cost, a source of error, and troublesome to manage? Do the people organize themselves into teams, or work in isolation as on an assembly line? Are work teams more like basketball teams, or more like golf teams?

  2. The perceived nature of time. How is time perceived in the workplace? Do people generally understand that adding time to a task can increase the probability of success? And contrarily, that extending the duration of a task exposes it to increased costs and the risk of disruption from external and internal changes? Do they understand that time can be both a friend and an enemy? Do they see that time is a scarce and valuable resource and understand that wasting time is a crime? Does management afford enough low-level support so that skilled people are not wasted doing their own administrative tasks?

  3. Safety and security. Do people feel comfortable that they won’t be demeaned or degraded? Is there a willingness to take on risk knowing that some failure is tolerated as the price of finding better, more innovative solutions? Is there a willingness to trust fellow workers? Are managers intent on enabling the growth and advancement of their subordinates? Or do they feel threatened by the teams they are supposed to manage?

  4. Navigation by grownups. Is there a business vision — embodied by a set of prioritized, intermediate, and long-term goals — broadly understood within the organization? Are the goals realistic and are the schedules for achieving them based on reality? Is the organization constantly moving toward these goals and not being constantly diverted by short-term emergencies? Does it prioritize and focus on a few strategically important initiatives? Is it capable of deciding what not to do?

  5. Collective confidence. Is the workplace confident that it is capable of overcoming problems it might encounter, and thus take on more challenging activ­ities? Does it focus more on wins, or more on avoiding losses? Is it afraid of risk, or does it see risk as a necessary part of advancement? How does it respond to uncertainty? Does it freeze with indecision? Or does its collective confidence allow it to be undaunted by uncertainty?

  6. Excellence and benevolence. Is there an evident pride of workmanship? Is the organization driven to turn out exceptional products and services? Does it spare no effort to achieve its full potential, to be as good as it can possibly be? Does it care about doing good things for society and making itself a good neighbor? Does it demonstrate these values by providing employees the time and resources to engage in community or environmental activities?

The order is relevant here, as some of the later drivers are influenced by the earlier ones. We predict you’ll be best served tackling the drivers in your own organization more or less in the order shown above.

Of course, these six drivers cannot account for all of the rich variation among workplaces, but they do account for most of it. By focusing on the drivers and their contribution to good cultural mores, you are more likely to understand the culture of your own workplace. The drivers should in turn help you move toward the workplace culture you want.

About The Author
Steve McMenamin
Steve McMenamin was Senior VP and CIO at Hawaiian Electric Company prior to becoming a Principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild. He also held executive positions at Borland Software, BEA Systems, and Southern California Edison Company. Mr. McMenamin was coauthor with John Palmer of the book Essential Systems Analysis, where he introduced the concepts of essence and business event modelling. He passed away on 20 November 2019.
Tom DeMarco
Tom DeMarco is a Cutter Consortium Fellow. He served on the Editorial Board of Cutter IT Journal (now Cutter Business Technology Journal) for more than 2 decades. Tom has been a frequent keynoter and moderator at Cutter Summits. Mr. DeMarco is a principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild. He was the winner of the 1986 Warnier Prize for "lifetime contribution to the field of computing" and the 1999 Wayne Stevens Prize for "contribution to software… Read More
Peter Hruschka
Peter Hruschka is a Principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild. As a trainer and consultant, he concentrates on business analysis, requirements engineering, and system and software architectures, preferably in the embedded world. Mr. Hruschka loves to be involved in developing products that combine software with hardware, electrical, and mechanical components – thus creating interesting systems in domains like medical systems, automotive,… Read More
Tim Lister
 Tim Lister is a Fellow of the Cutter Business Technology Council and a Senior Consultant with Cutter’s Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies and Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence practices and a member of Arthur D. Little's AMP open consulting network. He is also a frequent keynoter and moderator of the Cutter Summit. Mr. Lister, who has more than 40 years of professional software development… Read More
James Robertson
James Robertson is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence practice and a Principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild. He currently advises companies on how to adapt modern software development techniques to fit specific projects and how to effectively transfer the new technologies to the software developers within the organization. Recently, his research has focused on the development of … Read More
Suzanne Robertson
Suzanne Robertson is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence practice. She is also Principal and founder of the Atlantic Systems Guild. Ms. Robertson’s work includes research and consulting on the management, sociological, and technological aspects of requirements. Volere, the product of her research, is a complete requirements process and template for assessing requirements quality and… Read More