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DevOps / Tech Culture

Westrum‘s Organizational Cultures Are Vital but Misunderstood

Sociologist devised a robust way to test the cultural climate by focusing on information flow.
Jul 18th, 2023 7:34am by
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In 1988, sociologist Ron Westrum created a typology of organizational culture and published his findings in a 2004 health industry paper. Westrum’s classification system has become one of the best ways to understand and predict an organization’s performance. The research into generative organization culture has become part of the DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) Core collection, a set of capabilities, metrics and outcomes proven to endure through multiple years of study.

In this article, you’ll find out why Westrum’s typology is a reliable way to assess culture. You’ll then discover why the names given to different cultures can cause confusion and how to avoid misleading interpretations based on these labels.

Culture Is How You Accept and Process Information

To create a classification system for culture, you need to decide which demonstrable outcomes to measure. People often think of employee satisfaction or staff retention as suitable cultural measures.

With a clear idea of outcomes, you can create a hypothesis and design an experiment. You might look at the benefits package, office facilities, availability of flexible working or the presence of a well-stocked refrigerator. You could establish the relationship between these variables and employee satisfaction by surveying employees from many different organizations.

It seems common sense that well-paid employees with cold drinks on tap would be more satisfied than those on lower pay with no complimentary drinks. But salary and free drinks are poor predictors of a healthy culture. You can have a high salary, free drinks and a ping-pong table and still be rushing for the exit.

Westrum took a different approach. He wanted to understand how culture affected safety, not employee satisfaction or retention. To measure this, he was interested in the characteristics of information flow. Would better behavior around information result in a safer organization?

The classification system was interested in things like:

  • How much cooperation is there between departments?
  • What happens to people who raise problems?
  • Who takes responsibility when things go wrong?
  • Can different departments speak to each other without going through managers?
  • What happens to new ideas?

Westrum devised a robust way to test the cultural climate by focusing on information flow. The properties of information flow predict how an organization responds to safety-critical situations, but it also provides a strong indication of how they handle everyday events.

The three cultures model is based on information flow being the more critical issue for organizational safety.

Pathological Bureaucratic Generative
Power-oriented Rule-oriented Performance-oriented
Low cooperation Modest cooperation High cooperation
Messengers “shot” Messengers neglected Messengers trained
Responsibilities shirked Narrow responsibilities Risks are shared
Bridging discouraged Bridging tolerated Bridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoating Failure leads to justice Failure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushed Novelty leads to problems Novelty implemented

A generative culture is high trust and low blame. The Accelerate State of DevOps Report has found that generative culture predicts better software delivery performance and increased job satisfaction. Crucially, it also predicts better goal attainment at the organizational level. Simply put, a healthy culture is a profitable culture.

Are Cultures Mislabeled?

The problem with Westrum’s typology is that the labels cause confusion. The picture we have in our heads for terms like “pathological” and “bureaucratic” will likely differ from the specific properties described in the typology.

A bureaucratic organization reminds me of my years working in the finance industry. We all wore suits and ties and did things by the book. We were disciplined and careful because we handled critical life savings and were highly regulated. This kind of bureaucracy felt appropriate to the task at hand.

The suits and ties, discipline and attention to detail are not properties of Westrum’s bureaucratic culture. Modest cooperation, neglected messengers and problematic response to novelty are very different from the professional discipline I imagine from my time in finance.

Equally, people think a generative culture is loose and easy, which isn’t the case. A generative culture can act with high discipline. It can operate in regulated or safety-critical environments that require disciplined execution. Some employees in a generative culture might even wear pinstripes.

Culture isn’t the presence or absence of processes, rules and controls. It’s the quality and flow of information and the response to failures in the system. Imagine an airline pilot reporting a near miss. A pathological culture would silence the pilot to avoid bad publicity, a bureaucracy would ignore them and a generative culture would explore how to stop near misses from becoming terrible accidents.

We all have an idea of what it means to be pathological, bureaucratic or generative, and these ideas are often a poor match for Westrum’s definitions. This isn’t a failure on Professor Westrum’s part. The labels are appropriate in many ways. But the subjectivity of the terms makes them open to misinterpretation.

As a thought exercise, you could re-label the cultures to clarify that a pathological culture is aggressive, a bureaucratic culture is rigidly fixed and a generative culture encourages growth and learning.

Aggressive Fixed Growth
Power-oriented Rule-oriented Performance-oriented
Low cooperation Modest cooperation High cooperation
Messengers “shot” Messengers neglected Messengers trained
Responsibilities shirked Narrow responsibilities Risks are shared
Bridging discouraged Bridging tolerated Bridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoating Failure leads to justice Failure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushed Novelty leads to problems Novelty implemented

Building a Healthy Organization by Embracing a Generative/Growth Model

An organization shouldn’t convene a meeting to choose its culture based on its industry or circumstances. Generative cultures are the healthy way to run an organization; the other types represent anti-patterns.

Whether you are in a safety-critical organization or simply one that wants to achieve its goals, Westrum’s research found a generative culture performs best.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Pragma, Simply, Octopus Deploy.
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