Exploring Culture

Off the beaten track — Part II.

9 min readSep 4, 2019

Mapping Culture

How do we map culture? What is culture? Will mapping a culture somehow effect it?

In one interview with a global company that relied upon the use of stories as the main method of communication, an observation was made that was quite startling to begin with but obvious in hindsight — “maps are helping us shift our culture”.

One of the issues with using stories in decision making is that stories are often tied to an individual — the storyteller. We even teach people how to be a better storyteller as though the idea itself has more validity if only presented in the right way. This makes decisions and challenge personal, as it is not so much about whether we believe the story but whether we believe the storyteller. Hence the conversation can quickly become political. One of the advantages of putting the idea down in a map is that we now focus on challenging the map. It de-personalises the discussion. Maps seem to enable a company to have some frank discussions about its future and to identify how its culture needs to change with a lot less of the baggage of personal politics.

The company in question faced a changing market but it was also in denial over the change. The threat for the company was a global giant was about to industrialise their main product area. Part of the company, on the engineering side, could see the change coming but one part of the business, who happened to be the strongest storytellers, disagreed. The storytellers had been winning and revolt was fermenting elsewhere due to frustration over the inaction in the face of perceived doom. This tension had exploded in the boardroom into quite heated arguments whilst at the same time defensive gang-like mentalities were emerging elsewhere. The storytellers dismissed this as not being important because users would like their new product features. The engineering group disagreed. Whether conscious or not, exceptionally long powerpoint presentations were used by the storytellers to communicate their vision or more aptly “to beat doubters into submission”. In cases, this “death of thought by powerpoint” had become so bad that rules had been created to limit the use of text heavy slides.

The CEO of the company was more of a steward (a peace time CEO) rather than a war time CEO as depicted by ideas of great generals or conquerors. They saw their role as building consensus and brokering conversation rather than leading a charge. Unfortunately, whilst a perfectly admirable quality in many contexts, the consensus had broken down into hostility. Groups of engineers with strong local leaders were refusing to work with the business on projects that they considered “daft”. With revenue growth softening, any culture of safety and belonging within the organisation had been diminished by recent layoffs. Off-sites had become profanity laden blame meetings. However, despite this various groups at a low level from engineering to the business did work together in a highly collaborative fashion. Those groups were the gangs under strong local leaders.

By a set of happy coincidences, a small part of the engineering function had recently introduced the use of maps. The maps had a “quite revolutionary impact” as one interview told me. The maps had de-personalised the problem. People were talking about and arguing to the map rather than each other. This had enabled the engineering group to explain their concerns, allowing far more challenge and discussion over ideas. It enabled them to explain how the market was changing, how the competitor was playing the game and how they would need to change.

The maps had spread from the shop floor to the board room and started to build communication, challenge and trust. They were having “positive effects along the way in all but one group”. The one group that strongly resisted this new way of communicating were the storytellers. They operated in a far more hierarchical manner, with strong control of the narrative and a view that we just needed a better story. The problem was always something else i.e. “engineering isn’t listening” or “the story wasn’t explained right” rather than the idea was flawed. The maps directly threatened their perceived control over others as they allowed people to challenge. For some, challenge was supposed to operate in a more traditional sense i.e. “we give you the story and then challenge you for not delivering on it”. Instead people were actually challenging the idea but in map form. It was no longer possible to hide behind the fog of long powerpoint presentations and a well spoken narrative.

Whilst the impact of maps was talked about in glowing terms, the only point we should really note is that changing a means of communication can fundamentality alter our ability to safely challenge an idea, to express our concerns, to collaborate with and trust others. Different communication mechanisms can result in very different cultures. As one commentator noted

“you can’t change the culture by diktat, it’s a function of the experience of the people. If you want to change the culture you have to change the experience of those people. Maps enabled us to communicate with each other, we were finally discussing ideas and concerns by talking and listening rather than being presented at”.

Fixing Challenge

One of my favourite examples for explaining this problem is the Finance Industry Rack example. A particularly company, in the Finance Industry, had a problem caused by a bottleneck in the installation of new compute. The company was growing and needed more compute but installing new servers into their data centres to cope with the demand was not only cumbersome but prone to failure. They had a plan — to use robotics.

After many months of work and vendor interviews, they had crafted a fabulous story. Robotics would help remove the bottleneck, speed up installation of servers, reduce the failures, improve the process flow and most importantly support the business growth. The process flow was well understood (an illustration of such a flow is provided in figure 1) and the financial figures impressive (an illustration is provided in figure 2 — for reasons of anonymity, I’ve disguised this all).

A return on investment in under one year, removing the bottleneck, supporting business growth — what could you possibly not like with that?

Figure 1 — The Process Flow

Figure 2 — The Financial figures

The decision was almost a foregone conclusion. However, in discussions, a map was drawn (see figure 3). The remarkable thing about the map, and this I didn’t quite realise at the time, is it enabled us to discuss the problem at hand rather than the work and political capital expended in the solution. It’s almost as if by looking at the map then we collectively forget about the amount of time and money spent so far on finding the “robotic” solution.

A question that arose from the map was “Why were the racks in custom built?”
The answer was the company had custom built racks.

This led to the question — “What modifications are we making to servers?”
The answer was “Servers don’t fit our racks, we have to modify them”

This led to the questions of “Is this why we need robotics?”, “Is there a reason we don’t use standard racks?” and finally “Is there a reason we don’t use the cloud?”

Figure 3 — The Map

What was remarkable was that the map, no matter how imperfect it was, had enabled challenging discussions prior to the company embarking on spending capital on robotics. This type of discussion is part of what we call a pre-mortem, a mechanism of challenging a project, questioning what could go wrong with it, how we will manage that failure, what needs are we trying to meet, how will we know if it succeeds and why are we doing certain things? This is all done before the project even starts. If you want to start encouraging challenge, I do recommend the use of pre-mortems with some form of map.

NB, when a team comes for a pre-mortem, use maps to diminish the politics, ask those challenging question but avoid giving solutions. The team needs to own the solutions and even more than this, they need to own whether they’re going to listen to what comes out of the pre-mortem. Just remember to document it all for any future post-mortem — it’s a point of learning as well as challenge. You should avoid using this as a way of beating up people later in a post mortem and instead focus on enabling people to communicate and to learn. I can’t emphasise the importance of safety enough i.e. if you want to shut down communication or action then just threaten people who speak up or do stuff.

The downside of mapping culture

The introduction of maps can influence your culture but that should not be a surprise as some of the first parts of doctrine are communication, challenge and situational awareness. But does that mean a map of culture will impact culture and what is culture anyway? We’re no closer to answering that question other than to say that means of communication, challenge, trust and safety seem to matter.

Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952) said that by culture

“we mean all those historically created designs for living, explicit and implicit, rational, irrational, and non-rational, which exist at any given time as potential guides for the behavior of people”

The key to this phrase are the words “designs for living” as it highlights the interactions between people and this is where communication and challenge comes into play. It might seem trivially obvious but there is no culture without people and communication. Instead there are just fragments of some past culture. Our focus therefore has to start with the interactions of people but which people?

In the company above, we have two different cultures represented by two different groups. One was a top down driven, narrative focused, hierarchical and politicised culture that resisted challenge. The other was more of a bottom up, emerging local leaders, high degrees of challenge and communication that focused on the landscape. This is not to say that one group was wrong and the other right but simply to acknowledge that a difference existed. Whilst maps had enabled different forms of communication and challenge, it was the two competing groups that had highlighted the differences.

Hence, if we’re going to continue to explore these issues on our path to creating a map of culture then we need something with different types of people, possibly highly political and with division between those groups.

I can’t think of anywhere better to start than with Brexit itself.

Off the beaten track

Part I — What culture is right for you?
Part II — Exploring culture
Part III — Exploring Brexit
Part IV — From Values to Rituals
Part V — Exploring Value
Part VI — Embedded in memory
Part VII — Me vs We

The book of Mapping … so far

Chapter 1 — On being lost
Chapter 2 — Finding a path
Chapter 3 — Exploring the map
Chapter 4 — Doctrine
Chapter 5 — The play and a decision to act
Chapter 6 — Getting started yourself
Chapter 7 — Finding a new purpose
Chapter 8 — Keeping the wolves at bay
Chapter 9 — Charting the future
Chapter 10 — I wasn’t expecting that!
Chapter 11 — A smorgasbord of the slightly useful
Chapter 12 — The scenario
Chapter 13 — Something wicked this way comes
Chapter 14 — To thine own self be true
Chapter 15 — On the practice of scenario planning
Chapter 16 — Super Looper
Chapter 17 — To infinity and beyond
Chapter 18 — Better for Less
Chapter 19 — On Playing Chess

There is also an online course on Mapping provided by the LEF

This post is provided as Creative commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International by the original author, Simon Wardley, a researcher for the Leading Edge Forum.




I like ducks, they're fowl but not through choice. RT is not an endorsement but a sign that I find a particular subject worthy of challenge and discussion.