The Why and What Culture Conversation

There is a lot of 'talk' about culture in the media these days. If you listen and look closely, you'll hear it used in regards to sports teams, fans, social media, communities, events, countries, politics and, yes, organizations. Just the other day, I counted seven accidental observations, meaning I wasn't intentionally looking, of culture in use in the popular media. Three were about sports, as in the Maple Leafs have undergone a dramatic culture change in the past year, the Raptors playoff run proves the value of culture and the Blue Jays are building a new culture of respect for players and developing talent. While each case went on to explain its point, they really didn't define what they meant by "culture". For the Maple Leafs, it was about "a culture that rewards hard work and hustle". The Raptors? It was a culture of "stability and success". The Jays? According to President of Baseball Operations, Mark Shapiro, it's about "building an organization that can sustain its culture and build accountability and values in developing players". But what is "culture"?

Organizational culture is the values, underlying beliefs and assumptions that guide action and that are learned and shared by members of groups as they strive to achieve the organization’s goals and fulfill its purpose.

In these three examples, people are talking about values (Lencioni, 2002). The value of hard work and hustle, stability and success, and accountability, respect and developing players. If real, these are principles that guide action and are central to the organization's identity. They are important. No question. But culture is more than values. It is also more than people, their behavior and relationships. To create culture or achieve sustained culture change, we need to dig down to the level of belief systems about the best and right way of doing things.

Asking people to explicitly state the beliefs and assumptions that determine" the way things get done around here" aka culture (Deal & Kennedy, 1982) typically results in blank stares. It's simply too vague and conceptual for most people. The trick is to ask the right questions to spark dialogue with the objective of creating shared meaning. This is where the why and what culture conversation can help.

Question #1 - Who?

Who should participate in the conversation? The answer is simply anyone and everyone - the more the better. Of course, this may not be possible for practical reasons. The important thing is diversity. You want to engage people at different levels, genders, tenure, professions, locations and so on. Ideally, those involved are credible influencers, the people others look to for guidance, as they can spread understanding and help shift the culture if needed. If you can add the perspective of people outside the organization, even better. Outsiders often notice things that insiders are oblivious to. This might include customers, suppliers, analysts or even competitors.

Question #2 - Why?

The conversation starts with generating a whole pile of 'Why' questions that begin with 'Why do we do X this way?' where X is replaced with descriptions drawn from people's experience. For example, why do Maple Leaf players stay at a hotel when they are in Toronto for a playoff game? Why do the Leafs suspend players who are late for a practice? Why do they have a Father and Son weekend? Generate as many questions as possible and don't worry about filtering or critiquing them. This comes later. You're looking for a comprehensive description of the way things get done around here.

Every 'why' question has the potential to be meaningful but I like to start with the questions that people want to talk about; where they have the most energy. These are often the ones that are the most revealing. Once you've worked through these, you can decide how to handle the others. A word of caution, in an effort to go quickly, people are prone to say that a question is like one that has already been discussed so it can be skipped. A quick test is to go around the room and ask people to say or write down their answers. If something different emerges or views differ, it should be discussed.

As each question is answered, write down the beliefs and assumptions that emerge keeping in mind that people may see things differently. For example, one person might see the Leaf's Father and Son weekend as nothing more than a perk of the job while someone else believes it symbolizes the importance of family. But, what is 'family' and why is it important?  You might get to something like, we believe a solid support system (including the family at home) is essential for professional hockey players to successfully navigate the good and bad times that all players experience. One way of thinking about this conversation is to recall an interaction with an inquisitive two-year old. Why are you doing that? Buy why? But why? Eventually, you will have developed a core set of beliefs and assumptions. You will know you're there when every new question results in the same answers or challenges a defined belief.

Question #3 - What?

Chances are good, you will also have a list of 'why questions' that don't fit with the belief system. For example, why aren't mothers included in the Father and Son weekend? Aren't they part of the player's support system? Does this mean mothers aren't as important as fathers? This leads to the 'What' question which is "What does this say about our beliefs?" This conversation is about questioning current behaviors, practices and ways of doing things to identify inconsistencies that send mixed messages and serve to undermine the culture. It can however, also raise questions about the core beliefs and assumptions.

What is to say that the outliers aren't actually better or more appropriate for the organization? This introduces a new line of questioning. It starts with a macro question such as what is our vision, mission and/or purpose? What is our strategy? What do our customers expect/need? Given this, do our existing beliefs and assumptions make sense or do they need to change? The bottom-line is that what worked in the past may not be what is needed to be successful today and in the future. To use an example from the corporate world, an organization may have been successful operating with the belief that the best way to mitigate risk is through a system of controls that includes restrictive delegation of authority and hierarchical decision-making. But what if the world around them starts to change and they need to be able to make decisions and change directions quickly to remain competitive? The existing belief system now acts as a barrier. Unless this is changed, and with it related behaviors, practices and structures, the culture will get in the way of any effort to be agile.

In closing

Asking two simple questions....why and a powerful and effective technique to help people understand culture in a meaningful way. It is meaningful in that it can reveal the beliefs, assumptions and values that are deeply embedded in the collective psyche of an organization. In so doing, you have what is needed to achieve sustainable culture change by exposing behaviors, practices and structures that are in conflict with the belief system and/or by identifying beliefs and assumptions that need to change for the organization to grow and thrive.


Deal, T.E. & Kennedy, A.A. (1982). Corporate Cultures: The rites and rituals of corporate life. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Lencioni, P.M. (2002). Make Your Values Mean Something. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 5-9.

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