Assessing corporate culture in practice #2 – Using Kotter and Schein to assess culture

This is the second article on exploring and applying cultural assessment and change theory to influencing the corporate culture or a large organisation in practice. This article explores some of the most prominent management theories and models and explains their relative merits in practice.

You can access the first article here: ‘Assessing corporate culture in practice #1 – Kotter’s Culture vs Performance’.

Now that I’ve established why understanding the corporate culture is important (see previous blog on that here) it’s time to go ahead and design an approach that will explore and assess it.

“If we are to gain an insight into and perhaps some control over our situation…. we need to develop our understanding of how such organisations function and why the people within them behave as they do.”

Pugh, 2007

Understanding culture within any group is a complex and difficult task. Culture is the mixture of attitudes, beliefs, values, practices, stories, myths, relationships that forms ‘the way we do things around here’ (Deal and Kennedy, 1982).

Schein (1982) illustrates the complexity of culture using the illustration of an iceberg, showing how culture is split across various levels:

Iceberg model
Schein’s cultural iceberg model (1992), as illustrated by the Open University
  • Artefacts: Tangible manifestations of culture, such as stories and statements;
  • Values within the organisation, both stated and felt, and
  • Basic assumptions: the majority of the culture hidden below the surface, shaping how the organisation operates, unconscious and taken for granted ways of seeing the world.

With an understanding of this, I wanted the research to identify these layers of culture to create a description that is recognisable to the management of the organisation.

I already had access to a wide array of background information, including staff surveys and research I’d previously carried out that established the need for this project. This helped me get to the ‘shallow levels’ of Schein’s iceberg. What I needed was to get into the heads of the top and middle management levels to translate their thoughts and opinions into an image of the organisation and create a vision.

To achieve this I needed a workshop that would encourage a deeper understanding of culture. I decided to use metaphors to kick off the event, allowing managers to illustrate their understanding of organisational culture in a fun and interesting way. Gareth Morgan (1997) describes the value of using metaphors as:

“All theories of organization and management are based on implicit images or metaphors that persuade us to see, understand, and imagine situations in partial ways. Metaphors create insight. But they also distort. They have strengths. But they also have limitations. In creating ways of seeing, they create ways of not seeing. Hence there can be no single theory or metaphor that gives an all-purpose point of view. There can be no ‘correct theory’ for structuring everything we do.” 

(You can read more about Morgan’s Metaphors at The Knowledge Biz blog).

For this event, I decided to use a metaphor of confectionery, setting a task for the Directors to describe the culture of their services using sweets, chocolates and other sugar filled goodies (no-one was going to fall asleep in this workshop!).

To get a more in depth insight into the organisational culture John Kotter’s strategic/ cultural alignment and adaptivity concept gave a useful structure to design a workshop. I set out to turn Kotter’s concept into a tool that would help to elicit the thoughts and views of managers.

Using a PinPoint board (an excellent and simple workshop tool) I visualised Kotter’s concept as a simple, two axis matrix. Managers could then plot their thoughts onto using sticky dots to provide a visual spread of views to be explored further.

I knew the questions had to be simple and elicit an immediate gut reaction. The questions I settled on after some short consultation were:

  1. Does our organisational culture help or harm delivery of strategy?
  2. How easy is our culture to influence or change?

I designed a grid so that we could plot this quickly and easily, and in a very simple way show how we were placed overall.

Matrix design
My adaptation of Kotter’s Cultural Alignment and Adaptivity model (1992) into a grid


Results were excellent. The Confectionery Cultures exercise proved imaginative and engaging, encouraging a light-hearted discussion of culture, often given with humour. Despite the light-hearted nature of this discussion, the underlying comments were strong, revealing moments of enlightenment that often challenged pre-conceived concepts and the role of the group and individuals in shaping that culture.

The Cultural Alignment and Adaptability Matrix proved to be the most enlightening moment of the day, gaining a clear understanding of the various views and consistencies of the senior management team towards the culture of the organisation.

After managers placed their stickers on the matrix I explained the relevance of the boxes before discussing the results. I highlighted that the top right hand box as the most desirable place, which would indicate we had an appropriate and well aligned culture. The bottom left as the least desirable box, indicating a poorly aligned and potentially damaging culture.

T20 matrix
Results of the cultural alignment/flexibility matrix for Directors

Roughly half of the managers placed the organisation in the lower left hand box, with very few placing us in the top right. The penny dropped – we had a problem.

We explored the results, asking people to explain their choices and gain an understanding of what the impact was. Themes such as emergence of different and conflicting cultures across directorates, tolerance of bad behaviours, siloed behaviours, lack or real change, poor performance management came out strongly on the harm side.

On the help side, themes such as goodwill, desire, determination and experience of change and adaptation came out.

Although this only describes one part of the workshop and what we achieved, the exercise proved so successful that the senior management team asked me to repeat the exercise with the middle management.

GM Matrix
Results of the cultural alignment/flexibility matrix for Group Managers

After carrying out a workshop with 18 of the 36 middle manager in the organisation we started to develop an even more detailed understanding of the culture of the organisation.

On this occasion we adapted the questions to focus on both the overall organisation (orange) and within their own services (blue).

The results indicated a similar pattern, with a split between positive/adaptive and negative/rigid. However, on this occasion it became very clear that the majority of managers believed their own services are more supportive and more adaptable than their views of the organisation on the whole.

Significantly, a strong message emerged: that the organisational culture had noticeably improved over the previous 12 months. This manifested itself as a greater acceptance that change is both inevitable, and desired. There were still significant problems in the organisation but that these were being improved, often despite a lack of tangible changes related to the transformation programme.


The exercise assessed that we had a performance degrading culture, that would inhibit adapting and adopting needed strategic changes:

“Performance-degrading cultures have a negative financial impact for a number of reasons, the most significant being their tendency to inhibit firms from adopting needed strategic or tactical changes. In a world that is changing at an increasing rate, one would predict that unadaptive cultures will have an even larger negative financial impact in the coming decade.”

John Kotter, 1992

However, there has been significant cultural movement in the right direction, towards a more adaptive and positively aligned culture. We also developed an understanding of the challenges we would have to meet to meet out long-term strategy.

By discussing and exploring views of the negative behaviours that caused consternation and frustration, managers at both senior and middle management levels started to articulate elements of their desirable culture, of the culture we would need in the long-term.


Deal. T.E, and Kennedy A.A., 1982 Corporate Culture in the Rights and Rituals of Corporate Life, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

Kotter. J, 1992, Corporate Culture and Performance, The Free Press, New York

Morgan, G. (1997 – first edition 1987). ‘Images of Organization’, Sage

Open University Business School, 2010, Managing People and Organisations, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes

Pugh, 2007, Organisation Theory: Selected Readings, Fifth Edition, Penguin Books

Schein, E. 1992, Organisational Culture and Leadership, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: