An analogy to illustrate organisational culture

We’ve been discussing organisation culture and trying to get across the idea that organisations don’t have one culture, they’re a patchwork of culture within an overall frame and we should both expect and plan for that.

In my book on Organisation Culture, I illustrated the natural variation in culture across business units, teams, and locations by using an analogy.  Here’s the section from the book.  (I’ve adapted it a bit).

One way of getting to an understanding of organisation culture is to consider it as analogous to something else – climate and weather is a good analogy.  Following the Koppen Climate Classification System the world is divided into 5 major climate zones (analogous to an organisation).  Within each of the zones are sub-zones (analogous to an organisation’s business units, or functions).  Within each sub-zone are the daily weather patterns (analogous to teams within business units/functions).  Climate and weather are inseparable from each other.

NASA explains the difference between weather and climate as

 ‘Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere ‘behaves’ over relatively long periods of time.

The difference between weather and climate is that weather consists of the short-term (minutes to months) changes in the atmosphere. Most people think of weather in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, cloudiness, brightness, visibility, wind, and atmospheric pressure.  In most places, weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season.

Climate, however, is the average of weather over time and space. An easy way to remember the difference is that climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with pop-up thunderstorms.’

Using this analogy, you can see that an organisation level you could label the culture. You might say, for example that it is collaborative:  the rewards, metrics, other infrastructure elements may act as a framework to reinforce collaboration.  Within this framework, the way business units reflect collaboration may feel different from one unit to another.  Further even within one business unit at the team level day-to-day levels collaboration will vary – just as the weather does.

The climate/weather analogy is helpful when thinking about organisational culture because it represents culture in two-time measures – longer term and short term/immediate – and it paints the picture of local differences or patterns of culture within an overall set of patterns.

This climate/weather example illustrates how people make sense of the world around them by responding to patterns that they experience over time.  People make judgements, even in the absence of weather forecasts, on what clothing to wear and what accessories to take (hat, umbrella) by looking at the sky, feeling the air temperature, listening to wind noise, seeing the light level, noticing what other people are wearing, and so on.  They are making these decisions based on their experience of weather patterns.  This works well when they stay in the same climate zone, because the weather patterns vary only within certain parameters.

For example, in the UK we know that in January it’s a good idea to carry a hat, gloves, scarf and umbrella even if we don’t know that we’ll use each of them every day.    If we go to a different climate zone, that we’re not familiar with, we have to respond to different weather patterns and it’s much harder to make good choices on what to wear or bring in case of weather variation, as this blogger shows:

‘Before living in San Francisco, I definitely had no idea what to pack for a trip to San Francisco. It’s California, so it must be warm, right?

Wrong. There’s a little thing those of us who live here call Karl. He’s the fog that engulfs our city, bringing winds and low temperatures. The fog that covers the sun and inspires countless weekend getaways to wine country. He’s the reason why you’ll find hundreds of unwitting tourists snapping selfies on Fisherman’s Wharf in freshly bought San Francisco hoodies.’

Living in one climate people learn to make sense of the day to day weather.  Similarly, in organisations people make sense of an organisational culture by picking up the patterns of the organisation – things like what type of person gets promoted, how offices are allocated, what gets noticed, who talks to whom … . Where these patterns can be discerned across the whole organisation (equivalent to a climate zone) they are usually reinforced in policies, performance management systems, common visual symbols or décor and so on. And these may vary somewhat by sub-zone/business unit level.  At the ‘weather’ level – within a team the patterns are local (as in weather) depending on the nature of the work, the personalities of the managers, and so on, but can be really hard to get to grips with.

The experience of a long-serving executive moving from the marketing department to the strategic planning department of the same organisation illustrates this.  She made the comment “Marketing was very gregarious and outgoing. Here it is unbelievably intense”. She found this change difficult to adapt to commenting. “It was a gruelling experience at first.  I nearly gave up several times. What saved me was knowing at the broader level how the organisation worked and knowing where to go to get things done.”  This executive’s experience of the climate of the organisation helped in her initiation to local ‘weather’ conditions.

People who move from one organisation to another (as from one climate zone to another) have to get to grips with not only the climate-level change but also the local/team ‘weather’ patterns. And this can be very hard indeed.

Another executive, recruited from outside but to the same organisation as in the previous example, when asked six months into the role if he felt attuned noted:

“Not completely. I want to bring some fresh things in.  But I’ve had to adapt.  I’ve had to learn to fit into the culture and accept some of its strangeness if I’m going to be accepted.  For me there’s a bit too much consensus and discussion: meetings for two hours are not what I’m used to.  But I need to be careful. I need to understand why people do what they do. I’m confident enough now at the whole organisation level, but the local departmental differences are still worrisome to me”

Thinking of organisational culture as climate zone, sub-zone and weather which are interlinked and inseparable means we can recognize and work with local variations.  It gives the idea that an organisation does not have a single ‘culture’ but has patterns of culture swirling within a frame. It also suggests that trying to change the culture in the short term may have little impact on the overall patterns in the longer term.  On the other hand, they may, in the same way that a local volcanic eruption, or cutting down a forest, can have both an immediate effect on the weather and a longer-term effect on the climate.

The climate/weather analogy worked in our discussion – what do you think of it?  Let me know.



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