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The effect of culture on organisational design

culture-org-design The effect of culture on organisational design - an orgtology perspective

The purpose of organisational design is to create order. Yet too much order will drive predictability, which might blind us to a fast-changing world. To change, Org must be creative. Organisational culture will decide how much uniqueness we allow within Org. We need uniqueness for abstract thinking. It keeps us relevant. In so, we need order to efficiently perform. We manage this balance through merging culture with Org design. Culture is the deciding factor on whether Org design will work or not.

In Theory 2I of Orgtelligence we distinct systems intelligence from human intellect. Humans bring something unique to Org, which is abstract intellect. Systems struggle to be abstract. Uniqueness helps Org to exploit opportunities, be creative, and visualise a future.

Culture mostly embeds how we express our uniqueness. All organisations hold a set of collectively held beliefs, values, perceptions, assumptions, and behaviors. I.e., Org has a culture, whether we have defined it or not. Design gives a blueprint of the processes and resources that runs Org. It thus makes sense that we link culture with Org's design. Jointly they create balance between uniqueness and order. Without uniqueness Org will lose relevance. Without order, Org will not be able to perform. Culture and Org design are not separable.

The basic assumption on the effect of culture on organisational design

If the culture of Org is not conducive to its design, Org will fail. Without an internalised design, employees will do what they believe is right for them. This mostly creates silo functioning and bureaucracy.

Humans are most productive when they believe that what they do is meaningful. We see this happen in a myriad of ways. In many first world countries, governments collect huge chunks from the taxpayers pay-check. Yet, citizens have no problem with this. They believe that government will use their tax money in a meaningful way. Employees who believe that their organisations are meaningful, will work harder. Couples who believe that their family is meaningful, stay together longer, etc. Jointly, culture and Org design must be meaningful to its stakeholders. In absence of that, the performance and relevance of Org will be at stake.

The link between culture and organisational design

Purpose and intent are common denominators to both culture and organisational design. In organisational design we reverse engineer purpose into operational processes, rules, and procedures. We do the same with intent when we reverse engineer it into an executable strategy. In so, purpose and intent binds groups into a common culture.

In organisational culture, purpose ignites processes whilst values define behaviour. Purpose and values are inseparable. Jointly, they tell us what Org does, and how it does it. Intent drives strategy. It tells us what they see themselves as capable of doing.

When humans join Org, they bring difference. Org needs to find a way to channel this difference into a singularity. It must do so without losing the abstract value that diversity holds. We must thus create collective sameness without losing individual uniqueness. That is a tall order, since sameness and difference create a paradox. Two opposing concepts must work as one for the greater good of Org. In so, they must co-exist as a duality.

In Orgtology's Hypothesis 2x, duality must have both, receptive and projective elements. In this case, sameness is the receptive element, whilst difference is projective. In so, sameness is the algorithmic side or org, whilst difference is its abstract side. From an orgtology perspective, difference creates an X-Factor for Org.

To create cohesion, Org must internalise its purpose, values, intent, and business model. These items will give Org its sameness. On the other side of the scale is difference. Each stakeholder brings to Org new identity, perceptions, values, beliefs, assumptions, etc. In so, sameness and difference bring balance to each other.

For this reason, an Orgtologist must know that great freedom needs strong boundaries. Thus, for people to be themselves, there must be strong cohesion. Sameness and difference do not oppose each other. They co-exist as a duality.

How culture is formed

There is overriding evidence that cultures begin through survival anxiety. This is because it is easier to survive as a collective than as an individual. Through teams we can delegate roles and skills. We can run the business operations whilst at the same time we can plan ahead. That makes us both efficient and effective.

Culture is born when a group submits to collective values, purpose, and intent. In the case of Org, "a group" refers to all stakeholders.

Being a team is not enough since there will always be the anxiety that the team might not last. Therefore, symbols and rituals are so important to organisational cultures. It turns the team into something that is more permanent. Culture shares a common belief system. Although teams should share common values, they mostly do not need to share their beliefs. That is what makes culture such a long-lasting and binding force.

The flow chart below shows how survival anxiety creates teamwork and purpose. How the anxiety of group extinction leads to the creation of intent, values, and beliefs. It also shows that an internalised collective identity creates a culture.

The culture forming process from an orgtology perspective

Internalising an organisational culture of inclusion

The more freedom we give, the stronger our internalised identity must be. The question then is: How do we manage this balance? For an answer, we must explore how culture is internalised.

As explained earlier, culture begins as a quest for collective identity. Sameness thus drives culture. Yet, people are different. And since uniqueness is what makes us special, we are bound to stay different. In so, we must integrate both sameness and difference to create a culture of inclusion. The opposite of inclusion is exclusion. They co-exist. By internalising organisational values, purpose, intent, and business model, we express our sameness. It is that sameness that will be the boundary of who we exclude. These will obviously be people who do not see our purpose, intent, values, and model as meaningful. Sameness is the boundary within which people can express their uniqueness.

The most proven way to integrate sameness and difference is through constant dialogue. Stories of heroes and legends keep our cultures alive. These stories teach our children the difference between right and wrong, true and false, etc. That is how we keep culture alive. The same goes for Org. Coaches and mentors must use dialogue to internalise a culture of inclusion.

When we create dialogue around sameness, we stimulate cohesion. When we do so around difference, we grow.

The Venn diagram below shows the relationships we must manage to internalise a culture of inclusion.

  • Where Sameness and Difference intertwine, we have Integration.
  • Where Dialogue focusses on Sameness, we create Cohesion.
  • Where Dialogue focuses on Difference, we stimulate Growth.
  • Jointly Cohesion, Growth, and Integration will facilitate a Culture of Inclusion.

Facilitating a culture of inclusion - an orgtology perspective

Understanding sameness

Sameness is something all groups strive for. We see this in our cultural norms, beliefs, symbols, and rituals. In IsiZulu we call it Ubuntu, which means "I am a person because of people". The correct expression is "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu". In SeSotho we call it Batho Pele, meaning "people first". There is also the phrase "simunye", meaning "we are one". In every culture there is some encouragement to be one. We even talk about AI as the singularity – a system that connects us all. The need for sameness is real and alive in our world today.

Our ability to connect is what separates us from other animals. When we grasp this, the need for sameness begins to make a lot of sense. E.g., an octopus is highly intelligent. Yet, unlike humans, they do not have organisations that connect their intelligence. In a human world, a New Zeeland weather station can warn Japan of a coming tsunami wave. It is our ability to connect and share information that makes us intelligent.

To create sameness, Org must internalise the following framework

  • Purpose – who are we and how do we serve?
  • Values – how do we behave?
  • Intent – where are we going with who we are?
  • Business model – how do we monetise?

Of course, when people join Org, they have their own purpose, intent, and values. It is our task to create a relationship between individual and organisational identity. Organisational sameness will give the boundaries within which people can be different.

Understanding difference

Difference is a given, not a choice. No two people are the same, thus every one of us is unique. To ask people to let go of their uniqueness is asking them not to be human. In so, we must find balance between the sameness and difference. The one helps Org to perform, and the other helps it to stay relevant.

To cluster difference in an understandable way, we use three groups. They are:

  • Identity. This is the way in which one defines oneself as well as the way others will define you. We have three sub-divisions for identity. First there is fixed identity. These are things that a person cannot change. E.g., race, age, height, facial expression, ethnicity, aptitude, etc. Then there are identities that we choose. These are the groups and thinking we choose to be part of. E.g., ideology, politics, faith, etc. There are also identities that we hide. These are things we only share with a few or sometimes with no-one. E.g., sexual preference, status of health, preferences that are not common, etc. Of course, you can hide any part of your identity. It is individual perception of the self that decides what we hide or display. In orgtology we work with identity in Theory Ex.
  • Paradigm. This is our window of the world. It explains why we behave in a certain way. Paradigm deals with the values and beliefs that shape our perceptions. It also shows how perceptions lead to assumptions, which brings about behaviour. Paradigm thus defines our world. In orgtology we work with paradigm in Theory Px.
  • Relatedness. This is our response to both sameness and difference. Relatedness is where rubber meets the road. Here we put our ability to work in teams and to jointly achieve results to practice. How we relate and create relationships will define our success. In orgtology we work with relatedness in Theory Ix and Theory Dx. Theory Ix deals with intelligence and Theory Dx with the Relevant and Performing Individual.


When people join Org, they agree to its purpose, values, and intent. They do so because there is something in this "sameness" that is attractive and meaningful to them. Yet, these same people will bring immense difference into Org. This too is meaningful since difference creates an X-Factor. Org needs this X-Factor to stay relevant.

Org needs sameness to perform and difference to stay relevant. These elements must be in equilibrium. An Orgtologist will create this equilibrium by reverse engineering purpose and intent. To direct behaviour we must also define values. Through design we create the boundaries within which people can express their individuality. The Orgtologist who designs Org must be continuously mindful of people dynamics. It is people who will make the design work. In my experience, values must be carefully defined. It is through values where individuality will flourish or die.

To design an organisation is as much about culture as it is about process efficiency. People simply resist things that they do not perceive as meaningful. We cannot change that; it is our nature. Hence, where people resist change, we have two options. (1) We must adapt the way we design Org or (2) we must convince people of the meaningfulness of the design.


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© Derek Hendrikz: 2021-03-22

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