Jan's blog

Frameworks for Considering Culture

Reading publications on culture sometimes times reminds one of a group of blindfolded people touching different parts of an elephant and each coming to their personal conclusion about what it is. One thing that cultural practitioners do however agree on is that culture is an intangible, vague, complex, and very large concept. Working through the literature on the subject makes it even more difficult given the different descriptors of culture and a number of seemingly contradictory truths”.

Part of the difficulties of studying culture can be summarised with two quotes. The process starts with the reality that “to think about anything requires an image or concept of it” (Gharajedaghi, 1999). Creating these models or images, unfortunately, comes with a proviso in that they must “reflect the dynamic behaviour within organisations … [for if they don’t] … we have to question their credibility in enabling us to manage the organization effectively.” (Hoyle 2009).

After 25 years of trying to find an acceptable model, it can be said that the most difficult aspect is to stop thinking that you know. To manage your personal paradigms and to remain open to new perspectives. As Tolstoy (1897) said; “The simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.”

In a previous blog we started with an overview of systems. In this reflection we take it further and discuss a few of the concepts that helped shape our understanding of culture.


It has been a while since we published our last blog and reflection. In that reflection, we discussed some confusions that exist regarding organisation culture. Organisation culture is complex and multi-faceted and it becomes quite difficult to discuss some of the more complex aspects in our reflections. This is specifically relevant given our self-imposed standard that reflections must be four pages of informative yet “relatively” easy reading.

To help with future reflections on culture, we decided that as background and before the next reflection, Jan should first explain his journey into working with culture. We can reveal that the journey started with a basic question about the relationship between three generally accepted statements. The content does not classify to become one of our reflections so you can read about it here.

We are also glad to announce that after almost 25 years, many frustrations, successes and explorations, a related journey is about to begin. Jan is letting his brain-child leave the nest and has decided to make the questionnaire he developed and tested available internationally for use by OD and HR practitioners. Feel free to contact him if you wish to know more but as the saying goes, watch this space.

Culture: Analyse Detail or Look for Patterns?

In the latest reflection, we refer to an octopus as the poster child of culture. An octopus can worm itself into very small spaces and stick its tentacles into almost anything. Each tentacle also has its own brain. Like an octopus, culture is a multi-tentacle concept that seems to be present everywhere. Culture is also similar to an octopus in that, if a tentacle is lost, it can regrow a new one.

Attempting to understand culture by studying its details or tentacles usually only succeeds in highlighting truly convoluted causes and effects. Usually, it becomes almost impossible to identify these causes and their effects.

When studying culture one cannot adopt a reductive thinking – focussing more on detail - process. One needs to take a step back and objectively review it through inductive – holistic - reasoning. One needs to look for patterns and relationships, such as seeing that an octopus has nine tentacles but then considering the similarities and differences between them. The research needs to consider what drives octopus tentacles and even how they work independently, yet collectively. One must consider the total octopus and attempt to understand what makes an octopus an octopus.

In this reflection, we discuss two concepts namely processes and systems. To understand culture it is imperative to adopt a systems – inductive – perspective and not a process – reductive – perspective.

Extrapolating from what is seen

Since the 1980s, the terms culture and organisation culture have become possibly two of the most used, but also misused, terms in organisations and in organisation development.

There is general agreement that there is some unifying concept, force or mindset that affects all aspects of human-related functioning both in societies and in business. There is also a large degree of agreement regarding the influence this “force” has on organisational functioning. The difficulty is in defining, describing and understanding this invisible yet powerful concept. There seem to be almost as many descriptors and definitions as there are articles on the topic. This is not a negative reflection on the researches and authors; it is a reflection on the complexity of the concept. The reality is that describing culture is very similar to the difficulties faced in describing personality. With that said, consider the number of personality theories that exist each with its own followers.

An analogy heard many years ago, helps clarify why there are so many different views definitions and opinions on culture – and for that matter personality.

“Imagine a big building with only very small windows in a dark forest and no lights on. Next, imagine people on the outside looking through one of the small windows and trying to describe what is going on inside. People can only describe what they see through their small window.”

Today we start with the first in a series of reflections on what has been more than 25 years of trying to see through many “darkened windows” and trying to understand the intricacies and complexities of organisation culture.

Structure and Equitable Remuneration

Last week we did some 'probing' of executive remuneration and how it is influenced by economic factors. We touched on aspects such as equity, the need for perceived fairness and employee motivation. 

Every so often, we hear people saying that, given their physical work in production, they should earn more than for example a person working in stores or in an office. Other people talk about their friend, with a similar job title, who works at a competitor but earns more than them. It would be amiss if we did not also mention dissatisfaction about a colleague that spends their time drinking coffee with clients, but has a company car and earns a bigger salary.

One also often hears of an entrepreneurial organisation, or small NPO, that grows and expands to a point where their informal hierarchy needs more structure. Management and the board starts qustioning if their salaries are on par with other similar organisations.

When we answer these questions, it is important that comparisons are credible and done correctly. Attempting to compare by title alone is not feasible. Just consider the title 'consultant', which has many interpretations and scopes of work. Also, consider the title 'store manager' where the size of the store and the value of stock and number of employees could differ radically. It is critical to compare apples with apples.

Today we publish a somewhat technical reflection about job grading, salary surveys and organisational remuneration. Starting with how the organisational strategy determines the staffing needs, we explain how differnt aspects work together to obtain internal and external equity.

Expectations built on examples

In the preface of "The Requisite Organisation" (1989) Elliot Jaques wrote: "To get the best of this book: ... you must be willing to undertake a substantial long-term program of organisational and human resources development in which you and your senior colleagues sustain a personal interest and commitment". What makes it so powerful for me is that it sums up what we are working on through our blogs, reflections, and probes. We are busy building a resource of thoughts and ideas that we hope will not only help people practically, but also be food for thought and discussions.

We read and hear in various books and articles - including the Bible -  that we should not "follow their example. For they don't practice what they teach" (Living translation Matthew 23:3). Given human nature, we know this is easier said than done. We also know that telling someone that they should not do something while you are doing it, often has the opposite effect (specially with children).

In our recent document "Probing Executive Remuneration" (see below) we discuss a few ideas around capitalism and how some changes resulted in high remuneration of executives. One aspect we did not touch on is the concept of how the system sets examples and creates expectations. Irrespective of the reasons or what is being said, people considered as "successful" - whatever that means - become examples of what can, or should be done and expected.

The expectation of higher income - as per shareholder capitalism - has become so ingrained that one often hears people among the top 5% of income earners in the world complaining about how poor they are and how little they are earning. Executives cannot expect a large salary and expect people to remain committed when they they must work for 350 days to earn what the executive earns in a day. That is not deemed as equitable. 

"Probing Executive Remuneration

Linear Change and Retrenchment

The last week highlighted some effects of retrenchment - as part of a turnaround strategy, on organisation development and organisation performance. We emphasised that the dominant paradigm during turnaround strategies is predominantly financial, with the focus on affordability and short term ROI’s. This paradigm often leads to retrenchments.


Just yesterday, a quote on LinkedIn (see image) noted that the standard approach to change is as a linear process. However, even project management teaches that projects include progressive elaboration – details emerge as the project progresses. I will respond to the quote by saying that linear organisational change can only be done when working with inanimate aspects of business such as IT or Finances.

The minute "free thinking" people become part of the process, a systems- or process-methodology is required. Such approaches include frequent stops and starts and many iterations. This perceived “uncontrollability” frightens many managers into searching for fixed solutions and accepted “routes” from point A to point B.

Perhaps the question one should ask when discussing “turnaround strategies” is not “what can be saved by retrenching staff” but “what will be lost when retrenching staff”. It is then that issues such as breakdown of organisational learning, loss of experience, future cost of re-training, damage to organisational core competence, loss of top performers (they get jobs first) and loss of credibility in future recruitment drives come to the fore. In this week a large accounting firm lamented the damage to their image and resultant inability to attract top students from universities. To my mind this is a direct result of their recent retrenchment process

The few effects mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg, as we have not even touched on aspects such as survivor syndrome/ survivor guilt or drop in productivity. The human impact of retrenchments – on organisation functioning and organisational image – lasts much longer than any planned turnaround strategy.

These effects can be compared to attempting to push-start a vehicle while the handbrake is on.

Thoughts on Retrenchments

Turnaround strategies and retrenchments seem to go together like ...., no, let’s not start with corny clichés.

It seems that whenever an organisation experiences some form of financial problems, the first solution mentioned is retrenchment. 

From a purely financial perspective, retrenchments usually make a lot of sense. From a people perspective, it must however be asked if people are commodities - like raw materials - that can be increased or reduced as budgets allow. Many years ago, the futurologist Alvin Toffler identified what he called a pulsing organisation. These organisations, such as the electoral commission, employ people when needed but when the objective is achieved, the employment is terminated. These terminations are not official retrenchments but rather end of contract terminations.

Numerous organisations employ "full-time" employees on contract basis thereby allowing the company to reduce employment costs. These contracts are sometimes routinely renewed when the contractual time-period ends. Financially this again makes sense, as benefits are often not included in the contracts. From a people perspective, the law stipulates that this is not a long-term option. When terminating contracts that have been routinely renewed is seen in the same light as retrenchments.

Retrenchment is a complex issue and not always linked to management as some want to believe. Various aspects can affect an organisation resulting in unavoidable staff reductions.

When done correctly retrenchment is a complex process that, if not done correctly, could result in long-term repercussions. The effects often manifest indirectly resulting in hidden costs.

This week (download below) we briefly look at the role of Organisation Development and retrenchments.

Leaders and Agents of Change

A common model when developing training is ‘whole-parts-whole’. Simply put, you start by explaining the total picture, then break it into parts, and end the training by putting the parts together as a whole again. 

When reflecting on the last series of posts they might seem like scattered or loose parts.  Next week I hope to put the previous two reflections and their associated blogs and images together as a whole again. This week I want to touch on a topic that is also relevant now, but which I will deal with in much more detail – probably as one or two reflections with blogs - at a later stage.

Change does not just happen and teams do not just start performing.  In any change there has to be something that triggers it. Just as important as the trigger, is the nurturing of that process and the creation of an environment that enables the change to happen.

Many years ago, Noel Tichy1 wrote about agents of change and identified four key types of change agents;

  • Outside Pressure (OP) – Often also referred to as pressure groups forcing change on an organisation.
  • Analysis for the top (AFT) – These change agents are expert advisors that focus primarily on macro change processes within organisations.
  • Organisation Development (OD) – These agents come from in- and outside the organisation focussing on social processes within organisations. Do however not confuse the name with the Discipline of Organisation Development.
  • People change technology (PCT) – Despite their name, they are not technology driven but focus on personal change (behaviour modification). They are often involved in staff development.

It is interesting to note that when reading about team building and the importance of the leaders as team builders, people are (often unknowingly) referring to the last two types of change agents. If there is no pressure from outside (OP) and there has been no full-scale analysis (AFT), applying the last gives “transactional change” often with no strategic results. The other two agents usually result in “transformational change”.

Organisations often appoint a champion, someone to carry the responsibility for driving an internal change process. In an earlier blog, we said that as much as 75% of Organisation Development interventions fail.  If we had such a high failure percentage in ordinary project management, the project manager would usually be the first person under review! In project management however, things are somewhat more controllable than in OD, where we work almost exclusively with independently thinking (I hope) people, their thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. There is an EDS commercial – available on YouTube2 - about trying to herd cats that demonstrates this!

The reality is that what often happens is that organisations implement large-scale – “strategic / transformational” - change without the last two making the change process a failure. Usually – from a shareholder perspective - implementing the OD and PCT roles is the more expensive, takes the most time but has the least visible impact.  It is cutting cost and saving on the “invisible” change processes that usually result in failures with OD consultants and, subsequently, OD processes developing a bad reputation.


  1. Tichy, N.M. (1978) Current and Future Trends for Change Agentry. Group and Organization Studies (3), 4, 467-482
  2. You Tube video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk7yqlTMvp8

Recipe or Adaptation?

We read that as many as 75% of change processes end with sub-optimal results – and some authors even say most change processes end up as failures.

A mechanic can often follow a step-by-step process to repair a specific problem with an engine. The same applies in many other areas where one works with inanimate objects. However when designing an engine the use of fixed processes becomes less of an option. Every subject utilises a number of key principles or processes. When we consider Accounting, all accounting departments make use of e.g. journals, double entry systems and T-accounts. However, no two accounting systems are identical and no competent accountant will take a system, developed for the hospitality industry, and attempt to apply it - as is - in manufacturing.

The principle of ‘one-size fits all’ cannot even considered when working with people.

Organisation Development also has key principles and processes. The problem is that every environment differs and the reactions of people are not predictable.

When we consider the 75% failure rate mentioned above, many of these failures stem from people;

  • not fully investigating / understanding the reality of the organisation,
  • attempting to implement a “recipe” approach to Organisation Development,
  • attempting to apply concepts from a case study or book without adaptation,
  • believing there is a magic solution (read latest best-seller) to people-related problems in an organisation.

Perhaps it is pertinent to end with the quote form Alice in Wonderland, where the Cheshire cat says to Alice: “If you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

The question is: ‘Do you just want to end up where any road takes you?’ OD is a process requiring constant adaptation, review, planning and re-planning.