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Oh, what a tangled web we weave…”

By September 20, 2020Articles

By Mark T. Edmead

The title of this article comes from a poem by Sir Walter Scott written in 1808.   The full phrase is “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”. It means that when you act dishonestly you are initiating problems, and a domino structure of complications, which will eventually run out of control.

While the poem talks about acting dishonestly, in my scenario I don’t mean to imply that the organization is dishonest or lying per se.  At least not on purpose. But organizations have a de-facto “culture” comprised of many elements.

Consider now your organization’s strategy. Is it aligned with the actual strategic intent and values of the organization? Is it being implemented as expected? If not, what is hindering the organization from truly executing its strategy.  

In their book Exploring Strategy, authors Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes introduce the Cultural Web (see Figure 1).  In this web they identify six interrelated elements that help define the “paradigm” or the model of the work environment.

The six elements are:

Figure 1: The Cultural Web

  1. Stories
  2. Rituals and Routines
  3. Symbols
  4. Organizational Structure
  5. Control Systems
  6. Power Structures

The paradigm is at the center of these six elements, and it refers to the “taken-for-granted” assumptions and beliefs we have about an organization. According to Johnson and Scholes, the Cultural Web “shows the behavioral, physical, and symbolic manifestations of a culture.” Do we truly know and understand the six elements, or are we “deceiving” ourselves?

You may have heard the expression “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This famous quotation is often attributed to business management guru Peter Drucker. What does this actually mean? In essence it means that culture can constrain strategy. In a battle between an organization’s strategy and the organization’s culture, culture usually wins. In fact, culture determines and limits strategy.  Therefore, if the culture is not aligned with the strategy, the strategy is at risk.

Culture becomes increasingly important during organizational change, digital transformation, or organizational growth. There have been countless times when engaging with a client on strategy development or implementation, where the client has told me “this is the way we do things around here” or “that is our culture.”  What does that mean?  Is it ok to accept the status quo because that’s the way it has always been done?

We can use the Cultural Web to analyze the culture of an organization. The details on each element are as follows:

The Cultural Web – Stories

“Stories” refers to what people talk about both inside and outside the company. The stories can be positive or negative. These stories represent the actual or perceived idea about the organization. For instance, when applying for a new position, don’t we want to know what people are saying about a company or a department?  Internally someone might say “you don’t want to work here – they work you to exhaustion,” or “this is an amazing place to work.” Let’s put this in terms of strategy implementation.  What if the story is “they have tried changing the strategy before and it failed miserably.”  If this is the story going around the company, what would the success be for the implementation of yet another new strategy?

The Cultural Web – Rituals and Routines

“Rituals and Routines” refers to the daily activities and behaviors. Are the rituals acceptable?  Do they reinforce or contradict the desired culture? For instance, a company is wanting to embrace the Scrum framework.  Scrum contains many “rituals” such as daily stand-ups and retrospectives. If the company does not perform these rituals, they are most likely not embracing the true spirit of Scrum.

The Cultural Web – Symbols

“Symbols” refers to the visual representation of the organization including logos, titles, dress codes, or office layout. Say you want to implement a culture where everyone’s status is valued equally. Is that what you’re really saying if you have private offices for some (the proverbial corner office).

The Cultural Web – Organizational Structures

“Organizational Structures” reflects the structure defined by the organization chart as well as the unwritten lines of power and influence. Does your organizational structure promote high collaboration between everyone, or does it promote a more formal hierarchy with a few people at the top and the rest of the workers taking orders? Or perhaps the organizational structure promotes a siloed vs. collaborative working environment?

The Cultural Web – Control Systems

“Control Systems” refers to the ways the organization is controlled. This reflects what is important to the organization.  Is it profits above everything else (at the expense of quality for instance)? Does the company control employee performance using bonuses that can promote internal competition rather than teamwork?

The Cultural Web – Power Structures

“Power Structures” highlights the real power within the organization. Does one person, group, or department have the greatest amount of influence on how decisions are made?  How about the strategic direction? I’ve experienced this quite a bit where the business side of the organization makes the strategy decisions without involving, for instance, the IT department.  This also means the business makes decisions about IT solutions. The IT department is then relegated to an “order taker” role and does not participate in the setting of strategic direction.

As with most transformation efforts, we can begin using the Cultural Web. We can use it to shift the success of strategy, by assessing the current state of culture, determining the desired state, and identifying the differences between the two. Once these differences have been identified, we can develop a plan for the changes needed to create the culture we want.

Bottom Line

You can use Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web to analyze your current culture. It can help you to ask powerful questions to identify what the future culture should be, and identify what needs to stay, go or be added to. With these answers, you increase your chances to achieve your strategic goals.

Implementing cultural changes is not going to be easy.  It involves reframing values, beliefs and behaviors. Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web provides a good foundation for the difficult business of changing organizational culture. Using it, you can create a cultural environment that encourages success, and supports the organization’s objectives and values.

About the author

Mark Edmead is an IT transformation consultant and trainer. Over the past 28 years, he has provided IT transformation and business improvement services that align information technology with business goals to drive bottom-line performance and growth.

Mark’s focus is on change management, process improvement, enterprise architecture, technology road mapping, strategic IT planning, IT organization analysis, IT portfolio management and IT governance. Mark is TOGAF 9.2 certified and he is a Lean IT accredited trainer, a DevOps trainer, a certified COBIT 5 assessor, a certified Baldrige internal assessor, a Business Relationship Management Professional (BRMP) accredited trainer, accredited Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) trainer, accredited COBIT 2019 Foundation and Design/Implementation trainer, and a member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Board of Examiners.

One Comment

  • selse says:

    Over the past several years, Gartner has eschewed EA frameworks because every organization is different and will need its own bespoke approach to management and transformation. While the “unique” part is true, just as every person is unique, we must educate ourselves as widely and deeply as possible in leading and innovative ways to look at and act in our ecosystems — smartly and proactively. This article is an example of some basic parameters that must be considered when dealing with any organization and is thus a useful contribution to the upfront and continuous analysis that must take place in successful organizations.

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