To get people to work together closely, they need a cultural baseline. A cultural baseline is a dynamic framework of mutual understanding and agreed-upon practices that guide collaboration. This framework encompasses more than just values; it includes shared protocols, behavioral norms, and collective goals that everyone in the organization agrees to work within. By establishing such a baseline, team members create a common language and set of expectations that facilitate seamless cooperation and effective communication.
This baseline, however, is not rigid. It’s a living framework that evolves in response to the changing dynamics of the organization and the external environment. Regular evaluation and adaptation of this baseline are crucial. This process should be inclusive, allowing input from all levels of the organization to ensure that it accurately reflects the diverse perspectives and needs of the team members.
Moreover, the development of this baseline is an ongoing journey, not a destination. The baseline should be revisited and refined as the organization grows and learns. This iterative process helps the organization stay aligned with its evolving goals and the changing world around it. It’s a tool for continuous improvement, fostering an environment where innovation and growth are nurtured.
A dynamic cultural baseline creates a flexible yet stable foundation for collective action. It’s about establishing a set of guidelines everyone respects, fostering a sense of belonging and commitment. This approach is critical to building a resilient, adaptive, high-performing organization.
Theories Supporting a Dynamic Cultural Baseline
This simple idea can also be found in other organizational and cultural theories:
Schein’s Model of Organizational Culture: This model, developed by Edgar Schein, breaks down organizational culture into three levels: artifacts, espoused values, and basic underlying assumptions. Artifacts are the visible structures and processes within an organization. Espoused values include the organization’s stated strategies, goals, and philosophies. Basic underlying assumptions are the deep-seated beliefs and values that are often unconscious but greatly influence organizational behavior. Establishing a cultural baseline involves aligning these three levels, ensuring that the organization’s visible elements reflect its deeper values and beliefs.
Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development: This model outlines four stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, and performing. The norming stage is crucial for establishing a cultural baseline as it’s where team members develop shared expectations, rules, and behaviors, essential for effective collaboration and teamwork.
Social Contract Theory in Organizations: This theory posits that implicit agreements between employees and the organization guide organizational behavior. These agreements include shared beliefs, values, and rules. Establishing a cultural baseline in this context means defining and agreeing upon these implicit contracts, which guide individual and collective behavior within the organization.
Systems Thinking: This approach emphasizes the interconnections and interactions among various organizational elements. A cultural baseline in systems thinking serves as a unifying framework that ensures all parts of the organization work cohesively towards shared objectives.
Appreciative Inquiry: Appreciative Inquiry focuses on identifying and building upon the strengths and successes of an organization. It involves engaging stakeholders in envisioning a positive future and continuously evolving the cultural baseline to align with this vision. This strengths-based approach complements the other theories by focusing on what works well in the organization and how to enhance it.
Collectively, these theories highlight the importance of establishing a cultural baseline that aligns an organization’s structures, practices, and behaviors with its underlying values and objectives. This baseline acts as a guiding framework that enables effective teamwork, coherent decision-making, and a unified approach to organizational change and development.
In the context of RoundMap’s vision, establishing a cultural baseline aligns with the idea of breaking silos and fostering collaboration. It is the foundation for continuous innovation, stakeholder-driven leadership, and cyclical operations, facilitating a shift towards a more interconnected and adaptive organizational structure.
A Closer Look At The Supporting Theories
Edgar Schein’s Model of Organizational Culture is a widely recognized framework that helps to understand, analyze, and influence organizational culture. The model outlines three distinct levels of culture within an organization:
- Artifacts: These are an organization’s visible and tangible elements. They include the physical environment, dress code, company policies, rituals, and ceremonies. Artifacts are the easiest to observe but can be challenging to interpret accurately without a deeper understanding of the underlying levels of culture.
- Espoused Values: These represent the explicitly stated values and norms that are preferred within an organization. They include things like mission statements, codes of conduct, and other formal policies. Espoused values are what the organization says it values and believes in.
- Basic Underlying Assumptions: This is the deepest level of culture and consists of the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. These assumptions are often so deeply embedded in the organization’s psyche that they become ‘invisible’ to its members, yet they significantly influence organizational behavior.
Concerning establishing a cultural baseline, Schein’s model is particularly relevant. A cultural baseline can be considered a foundational set of values, beliefs, and behavioral norms shared across an organization. This baseline is critical for several reasons:
- Alignment and Consistency: Establishing a cultural baseline ensures alignment between the various levels of culture — the visible artifacts align with the espoused values, which are grounded in the underlying assumptions. This alignment is crucial for the authenticity and integrity of the organizational culture.
- Guiding Behavior: A clear cultural baseline helps guide the behavior of individuals within the organization. It provides a decision-making framework and helps resolve conflicts or dilemmas by referring to core values and assumptions.
- Change Management: Understanding the current cultural baseline is crucial when implementing change or innovation. It allows leaders to identify which aspects of the culture may support or resist the change and to plan accordingly.
- Integration and Adaptation: For new employees or teams, understanding the cultural baseline helps them to integrate and adapt more effectively. It serves as a guide to ‘how things are done around here’.
Edgar Schein’s model provides a comprehensive framework for understanding organizational culture at multiple levels. Establishing a cultural baseline is essential for ensuring alignment across these levels, guiding behavior, managing change, and facilitating organizational adaptation and integration.
Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development is a theory introduced by psychologist Bruce Tuckman in 1965, which outlines the phases that a team typically goes through as they work together. Understanding these stages can be particularly useful in establishing a cultural baseline in an organization, as it provides insights into the dynamics and development of teams. The stages are:
- Forming: In this initial stage, team members are getting to know each other and are often polite and cheerful. There’s uncertainty about roles and expectations, so members are generally cautious. A cultural baseline can provide guidance and clarity in this stage, helping team members understand the expected behaviors and norms within the group.
- Storming: Conflicts and competition emerge as individuals push against established boundaries. Personalities and working styles clash, which can lead to tension and conflict. A well-established cultural baseline helps navigate this phase by providing a common framework and values guiding conflict resolution and interpersonal interactions.
- Norming: Teams start settling into their roles and establishing norms and rules. Cohesion begins as team members adjust their behaviors to align with the team’s objectives and each other. A cultural baseline plays a crucial role here, as it forms the foundation of the norms and rules that are being developed.
- Performing: The team is now effectively working towards its goals with high autonomy and competence. A robust cultural baseline supports high performance by ensuring team members align their values and approaches, facilitating smooth collaboration.
- Adjourning/Terminating: In some model versions, a final stage is added where the team disbands after achieving its goals. The cultural baseline helps in this stage by providing a shared sense of accomplishment and a framework for ending the project on a positive note.
Establishing a cultural baseline aligns closely with Tuckman’s model, especially in the norming stage, where the team’s values and norms become solidified. A clear and robust cultural baseline can guide teams through the storming phase by providing a reference point for acceptable behaviors and conflict resolution. It also underpins the team’s actions and interactions in the performing stage, ensuring everyone works cohesively and productively towards common goals.
Social Contract Theory in organizations is derived from the broader philosophical idea of the social contract, which suggests that people live together in society under an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. This theory can be understood as the implicit agreements or understandings that govern organizational behavior in an organizational context.
Here’s how Social Contract Theory relates to the concept of establishing a cultural baseline in organizations:
- Shared Expectations: The social contract in an organization consists of the shared expectations and norms that its members understand and follow. Establishing a cultural baseline involves articulating these expectations and norms clearly. This baseline is a reference point for acceptable or unacceptable behavior within the organization.
- Trust and Mutual Understanding: The success of a social contract relies on trust and mutual understanding among the organization’s members. A cultural baseline helps build this trust by ensuring everyone is on the same page regarding the organization’s values and operational principles.
- Guiding Behavior and Decision-Making: Just as a social contract guides the behavior of citizens within a society, a cultural baseline guides the behavior of individuals within an organization. It helps decision-making processes by providing a framework aligned with the organization’s core values and objectives.
- Conflict Resolution: When conflicts arise, referring to the established cultural baseline (the organization’s social contract) can help resolve them. The baseline provides a common ground for assessing and addressing disagreements.
- Change Management: In times of change, understanding the existing social contract within the organization is crucial. Changes should be made to align with or thoughtfully modify this contract. A clearly defined cultural baseline helps evaluate how proposed changes will fit into the existing framework of values and norms.
In summary, Social Contract Theory in organizations emphasizes the importance of implicit agreements and shared understandings that govern behavior. Establishing a cultural baseline makes these agreements explicit, providing a clear framework for behavior, decision-making, and conflict resolution and ensuring alignment with the organization’s values and objectives.
- Understanding Interrelationships: Systems Thinking emphasizes the importance of understanding how different elements of an organization are interconnected. Establishing a cultural baseline helps identify and reinforce these connections by ensuring everyone in the organization shares a standard set of values and norms. This shared understanding facilitates better collaboration and more coherent decision-making.
- Holistic Perspective: Systems Thinking requires looking at the organization as a whole rather than just focusing on its parts. A cultural baseline provides a unified framework that supports this holistic view. It ensures that all actions and decisions are made considering their impact on the entire organization, aligning with the broader goals and values.
- Managing Change: In Systems Thinking, change in one part of the system affects the whole system. Similarly, changes in organizational culture or processes need to be aligned with the established cultural baseline to ensure they are effective and sustainable. Any change initiative should be evaluated regarding how it aligns with or affects the existing cultural norms and values.
- Feedback Loops: Systems Thinking involves understanding feedback loops within a system. A cultural baseline provides a reference point for receiving and interpreting organizational feedback. It helps in understanding how behaviors and practices are influenced by and influence the organizational culture.
- Boundary Recognition: Systems Thinking also involves recognizing and understanding boundaries within a system. A cultural baseline establishes these boundaries regarding acceptable behaviors and practices within the organization. It helps define the limits of what is permissible and aligns individual actions with the overall system’s objectives.
In summary, Systems Thinking’s approach to understanding and managing complex systems aligns nicely with establishing a cultural baseline in an organization. A well-defined cultural baseline supports a holistic understanding of the organization, helps manage change effectively, and ensures that all parts of the organization work coherently towards shared goals.
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a valuable theory to consider when discussing the establishment of a cultural baseline within organizations. AI is a model that identifies what works well in a system and builds upon these strengths. It differs from problem-focused approaches by seeking out the positive aspects of an organization’s culture and practices.
Incorporating Appreciative Inquiry into the earlier discussion about establishing a cultural baseline involves the following aspects:
Identifying the Positive Core: AI encourages organizations to identify their “positive core,” which includes their strengths, achievements, best practices, and values. This aligns with establishing a cultural baseline by focusing on the best of what currently exists within the organization’s culture.
Building on Successes: Instead of solely focusing on fixing problems, AI suggests building upon past and current successes. This approach can be integral to developing a cultural baseline that is aspirational and grounded in what the organization has successfully achieved and valued historically.
Continuous Evolution: AI emphasizes the importance of regularly revisiting and evolving the organization’s focus and direction. This aligns with the idea of a dynamic cultural baseline that evolves to reflect the changing circumstances and insights of the organization.
Engaging All Stakeholders: AI involves engaging many stakeholders in the inquiry process. This ensures that the cultural baseline encompasses diverse perspectives and represents the entire organization.
Creating a Vision for the Future: Part of AI involves envisioning the future and determining the steps needed to achieve that future. This future-oriented thinking helps continuously update the cultural baseline to align with the organization’s evolving vision and goals.
Incorporating Appreciative Inquiry into the concept of a cultural baseline highlights the importance of focusing on strengths, engaging stakeholders, envisioning a positive future, and ensuring that the baseline remains dynamic and representative of the organization’s ongoing journey.
Beware McKinsey's Shared Values Dogma (7S Model)
We recommend reading Geoff Marlow’s post to learn more about the risks associated with (static) shared values.
Marlow: “You’d think that amongst the dozens of organizations I’ve had the privilege to poke about throughout Europe, Asia, and the US over the past 35 years, the best performers would be living proof of the power of shared values. Quite the contrary. The organizations that trumpeted their shared values most loudly were the ones whose cultures were most toxic to innovation, agility, and adaptiveness (ed. Enron, McKinsey). This should be no surprise, given how many high-profile organizations fail to uphold their values. But the myth of culture as shared values persists.”
A quote we found in a working document by Tom Peters is most enlightening:
“How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control or evolution and learning? Does progress require a central blueprint, or is it a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis, and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape.” —Virginia Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies