I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a definition of organisational culture that I agree with. It seems to almost through the act of definition we make compromises that detract from the complexity. We talk about culture as a collective phenomenon, yet in many ways it is a very individual experience.
And when we look to aggregate the individual experiences, we unwittingly homogenise the outcomes to the point of potential meaninglessness. In many ways, understanding that individual experience is the key.
A number of years ago I was trying to explain organisational culture to a group of business leaders and I drew this:
The specific words in the foundations and interventions boxes are irrelevant, purely to illustrate a point. Culture, for me, is the experience that results from the interactions and interventions that exist in a system.
Ultimately organisations want to try to create something cohesive and so, in order to do this you need to design the interventions against a set of consistent criteria (we often call them values), combined with leadership behaviours that are in tune with same criteria, that gives you the best chance of creating something that gives you your best chance.
Organisations often fall down because the experience of the interventions doesn’t match the foundations, (e.g. “we make things happen fast” but the reality is bureaucratic decision-making), leadership is inconsistent with the foundations and interventions, (“that’s fine but in this case we need to make an exception”), or they believe the end is somehow achievable by running some sort of culture survey, without doing the hard work.
Individuals will either like or not like a culture and that often leads us to talk about “fit” as if it is some sort of silver bullet. However, it is often the organisation determining whether the individual is a fit – which creates a whole other world of pain. I may have a favourite restaurant, it doesn’t mean I want to eat there all the time.
At the end of the day, it is complicated and we need to be ok with that as most important things are. Whilst at the same time, we probably need to worry less about the experience and more about the construct. If we’re making organisations consistent, cohesive and clear then maybe we should worry less about how we make people feel about our culture, and let them decide for themselves.