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Book Review: Organizational Culture and Leadership

Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fifth Edition

Organizational Culture and Leadership, Fifth Edition by Edgar H. Schein

When I first became VP of Engineering at insurance startup The Zebra, I wrote a long internal blog post sharing several book recommendations–books that have made an impression on me in my career. From time to time, I plan to review a few of those for you here in my blog.

I first ran across MIT Professor Emeritus Dr. Schein when I worked as Lead Developer and Director of Engineering at athenahealth. Athena, being based in Watertown, Mass., generally prefers ideas that come out of places like Harvard and MIT, and ideas about company culture were no exception. I failed to really appreciate Dr. Schein’s ideas until I moved on to a local Austin startup that had a somewhat more ambiguously defined company culture.

Among other topics in the book, Schein gives an approach for really understanding culture. He focuses on three areas:

  • “Cultural artifacts” — Things or processes that represent the culture but are not the culture. For example, The Zebra has pillows that say, “Express Gratitude”. More impactfully, the weekly leadership meeting begins with everyone saying something they are grateful for that week.
  • “Espoused values” — The values that the organization says are their values and culture. As you might expect, The Zebra includes “Express gratitude” among their espoused values.
  • “Underlying assumptions” — This is what’s behind the values. In our current example, The Zebra has an underlying assumption that employees should be grateful for the work they do and the people they work with, and that they shouldn’t take it for granted.

One of the companies I used to work for had an espoused value of “Be scrappy”. (They’ve since changed it.) I always worried that everyone’s “underlying assumptions” were different. For one person, “Be scrappy” might mean “Go fast and cut corners”. For another, it might mean, “Be resourceful”. For another, it might mean, “Be determined.” Lack of alignment on the underlying assumptions behind an espoused value is a problem when it comes to day-to-day execution. An engineering team could faithfully believe they are “being scrappy” when they cut corners to meet a deadline by skipping testing or implementing expedient but hard to maintain hacks. Meanwhile, others in the same company might assume that “being scrappy” doesn’t compromise on quality or maintainability. Neither interpretation is wrong–but everyone should be aligned on which interpretation to use.

Right now, I’m working through a culture exercise with an organization that is having a few stumbles as they try to head in a new strategic direction. I’m helping them identify artifacts, espoused values, and assumptions, and then shining a light on misalignments that could cause problems as the organization grows in the new direction. Does your company need this? I offer half-day, one-day, and two-day packages for digging into team culture. Reach out if you want some help.

My Goodreads review of the book is below.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first learned of Edgar Schein when I worked at athenahealth, Inc. They are a company with a strong culture, and they spent a lot of time trying to understand and protect it—at least up until 2017. Interestingly, the Austin office kind of had an allergic reaction when people would come down from the headquarters in Boston to talk about culture. “Our culture is just fine, thank you–leave us alone!” I think part of the problem was that we just did culture exercises without understanding the reasoning behind them.

After digging a bit deeper, I believe the three-way decomposition of “cultural artifacts”, “espoused values”, and “underlying assumptions” is a great approach. The book fills in a lot of the information around this that makes the approach even more valuable. Having said that, the book is long, and not every chapter is practical and valuable to me—but enough of it is.

As I move into a new business consulting role, Schein gives me a valuable approach to understand the cultures of the companies I am working with. I’ve started doing culture sessions with one organization, and feel like it’s helped clarify some misaligned underlying assumptions.

Lesson learned: I shouldn’t have bought this as an audiobook. It’s too hard to highlight sections I want to save. The upside was that I could listen at 1.25x speed.

Five stars for Schein’s methodology. A little less for the length that made this a long, but worthwhile, slog.

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