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How culture surveys can inhibit cultural evolution


How culture surveys can inhibit cultural evolution

How to measure, assess and evolve culture is an increasingly asked question, with Boards in Australia and around the world having an increased responsibility in relation to culture oversight and awareness. However, traditional definitions and measurements may do more harm than good.

In our previous article we explored how engagement surveys can inhibit cultural evolution.

In this article, we take a critical look at traditional ways of defining and measuring culture including the dangers of benchmarking.

How do you measure culture?

To be able to measure culture requires that we first understand what it is.

A popular definition of culture is “what goes on around here”. However, knowing the “what” does not necessarily tell us “why we do things this way”.

By exploring the “why” we are invited to look deeper. This involves unpacking our ways of individually and collectively seeing the world and the assumptions that underpin our worldview.  How does this worldview enable or inhibit  cultural and organisational aspirations?  How do our ways of thinking and knowing suppress or liberate individual and collective potential?

One way that people attempt to measure culture is through using engagementculture or climate surveys. While surveys can give us some clues into what is happening in an organisation, they often have a range of unintended consequences that can serve to limit, rather than evolve culture over time. For an insight into these, see our article on how engagement surveys can inhibit cultural evolution.

Many culture surveys don’t really measure culture

Our and our clients’ experience is that many popular culture surveys are less effective than they could be in surfacing what could really contribute to evolving culture. They tend to focus on measuring “what goes on around here” rather than looking at “why” and the patterns across a whole system. This often focuses the organisation on “changing” systems, processes and behaviours.  While changing systems, processes and behaviours are essential parts of enabling cultural evolution, it is equally important to address the “why” and the challenge of evolving world-views and mindsets through developing qualities like reflective ability and strategic thinking. The result of focussing ONLY on what is visible is that culture only changes on the surface, meaning that culture is not transformed sustainably.

While organisational climate (the vibe and atmosphere) can change by focussing on behaviours, systems and processes, culture and cultural evolution is deeply influenced by the collective world-views, beliefs and assumptions the organisation holds. If the change is superficial, then the culture will tend to devolve quickly in crisis, without ongoing vigilance and focus, or with a change of leadership.

From our experience, culture is best diagnosed and measured through ongoing dialogue and development towards the organisation’s aspirations. This is challenging for many organisations who have not yet developed the capacity for dialogue (different from debate) and deep development (as opposed to training and capability frameworks). While not the full story, culture measurement should also be reflected in other metrics such as financial returns, innovation, customer and community engagement, that reveal how culture work is actively supporting the aspirations of the organisation.

In creating the Adaptive Cultures Insights Diagnostic our intention was to create a culture diagnostic which provided a view of patterns across a whole system. The diagnostic provides insight into the WHY as well as the WHAT and a view of how the organisation can evolve individually, socially and structurally to enable its aspirations. We find the Adaptive Cultures Insights Diagnostic particularly useful in the following circumstances:

  • To provide the Board and Executive team with a picture of organisational culture that goes deeper than climate, behaviours and processes, and identifies what drives these
  • To help an organisation to look at itself and its patterns as a whole system, identifying leverage points for evolution as well as cultural inhibitors to its aspirations
  • To identify where to focus energy for maximum evolution rather than “spray and pray”
  • To help organisations to see that the way they work with culture needs to evolve and change based on their stage of evolution. Build the foundations (dependent), develop personal agency (independent) and responsibility, and develop the capacity to co-create (interdependent) their aspirations
  • To help people to see how the organisation as a whole is evolving over time and to enable a “continuous evolution” rather than a “change” view of the organisation
  • To support people to gain a deeper appreciation for the complexity of culture and their responsibility to influence it positively
  • To encourage deep and ongoing reflection and questioning
  • To provide people a vision of what culture can be (beyond what they have imagined or experienced)
  • As part of cultural due diligence prior to M&As to enable conversations about the “invisible” as well as the “visible” aspects of culture
  • Post M&A to enable shared aspiration and alignment as well as to support the unique contribution of each culture to enable a greater whole

To understand why we created a culture diagnostic as survey sceptics and how the Adaptive Cultures Insights Diagnostic is different, read this article.


Benchmarking can also inhibit cultural evolution

While engagement and culture benchmarks are popular, our experience is that the way benchmarking is often applied can inhibit the adaptive potential of an organisation.

Most external benchmarking assumes that the aspirations and context for each organisation in the benchmark is similar and/or stable. This is increasingly not the case.  Comparing and contrasting cease.

Another concern we have with benchmarking is that many culture and engagement surveys benchmark against notions of what good leadership and culture looked like in the 1970s or 1980s. These are often outdated worldviews that no longer serve adaptive or evolving organisations. This kind of benchmarking reinforces traditional and retrogressive views of human beings and systems.

We believe it is more impactful for organisations to look to the future of work, customers, leadership, their industry, communities and world, and stretch into potential futures.

A focus on potential futures enables greater creative and disruptive thinking, as well as a focus on ongoing growth and evolution.

Most external benchmarking assumes that the aspirations and context for each organisation in the benchmark is similar and/or stable. This is increasingly not the case, and as such comparing and contrasting cease to become useful for an organisation that is focusing on its own unique potential.

At Adaptive Cultures we work with organisations to enable ongoing evolution.

If you are interested in being part of the Adaptive Cultures Community or bringing these ideas to your organisation you might like to apply for our next Adaptive Cultures Practitioner Accreditation.

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1 comment

  1. This article makes some great points about understanding cultures in organizations:
    – each organization has a culture that is unique, just as every family has a culture that is unique.
    – there are different working cultures within an organization – it’s a complex system
    – presence of strong aptitudes amongst leaders in dialogue and development (v T&D) are vital pre-requisites in having a chance of working effectively with cultures in organizations
    – cultures are in service of what an organization is seeking to achieve
    – culture diagnostic models currently developed are manifestations of current leadership paradigms that are predominantly in play.
    – engagement surveys tell you what people think but not why…which makes whatever comes out of them unactionable. They are a very poor proxy for understanding culture.

    Our position on this topic concerns what people seek from and are motivated by in work. We can measure this accurately. One of biggest issues in organizations is a dislocation between who people are and what are require to do. The dislocation leads to many many organizational problems not least people who predominantly go through the motions in the job just to get through the day. This lack of fulfilment is a profoundly de-humanzing experience.

    What I appreciate about the Adaptive Cultures body of work is that it is a serious and thoughtful approach to change the grim reality or work that pervades many organizations.

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