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Describing Culture:

from Diagnosis to Inquiry

Richard Seel

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For the change agent working in a traditional OD framework, describing culture is the first step in a rational change process which involves moving an organisation from ‘here’ to ‘there’. For the practitioner who works from a complex or living systems perspective, describing culture is also vital—this time as a key part of the change process itself. This article espouses the second approach and outlines a number of ways of facilitating a rich collaborative inquiry into organisational culture. It also presents a ‘simple rules’ approach to cultural description which offers a new way of enabling people to articulate their own culture and negotiate to change it.

Key words: Culture, collaborative inquiry, simple rules, change.


Everyone seems familiar with the concept of organisational culture nowadays. Indeed, everyone seems familiar with the notion that there are different kinds of culture. I hear them as I work in various organisations—‘blame culture’, ‘action-man culture’, ‘culture of achievement’, ‘learning culture’ and so on.

These sound-bite labels are useful for the popular press and for casual conversations but there are times when we need a little more—perhaps something richer, perhaps more precise. Describing culture is the process by which we gain this richer and more accurate portrayal.

The classical approach to cultural description

The classical view of culture takes diagnosis as a key stage in a rational change process as summarised by Wilkins & Patterson (1985):


Where do we need to be going strategically as an organisation?


Where are we now as a culture?


What are the gaps between where we are as a culture and where we should be?


What is our plan of action to close those gaps?

This approach is based on Kurt Lewin’s assumption that change is something which happens between levels of quasi-stationary equilibrium (see, for instance, Lewin, 1999/1948, pp. 279ff.); culture is seen as an expression or property of a particular state. In this worldview—of classical OD—equilibrium is seen as the natural and desirable state of an organisation. Culture is reified, becoming a ‘thing’ which can be observed, analysed and replaced with a different, better, thing.

A more modern complex systems view would expect organisations to exist far from equilibrium (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984). In this way of describing the world, culture becomes a process rather than a state.

The major approach to diagnosis within the classical paradigm is the questionnaire. Roger Harrison’s is one of the best known (Harrison & Stokes, 1992). It is designed to discover which of four basic cultural ‘orientations’ is currently prevalent and which would be more desirable for the future. The Organizational Culture Inventory promoted by Human Synergistics (Cooke & Szumal, 1993; Bedingham, 1998) is designed to reveal the relative strengths of an organisation with respect to 12 cultural ‘styles” organised into three general “types”. (C.f. Hofstede, 1984, Cameron & Quinn, 1999.)

I have three major difficulties with these approaches; two theoretical, one practical. The theoretical objection relates to the ‘types’ which different questionnaires set out to discover. They reinforce the idea of culture as something static and ‘given’, ignoring the dynamic and emergent aspects which anthropologists see as the core of culture.

Secondly, the questionnaire, with its associated numbers and statistics offers a spurious sense of precision to the diagnosis of culture. Its major use is in reassuring managers that culture is really just like profit—both can be measured and compared year on year. Culture is not so easily pinned down.

My final objection to questionnaires is that they are done to an organisation. Indeed, Verax’s promotional literature says that the Organizational Culture Inventory is “easy to administer” as if it were some pill or potion. It seems to me that this reinforces classical notions that organisational change can somehow be engineered from outside an organisation. In other words, the questionnaire is a ‘tool’, appropriate to a mechanical metaphor for organisations (Morgan, 1997). The view that it is possible or useful to treat organisations as machines is still prevalent but increasingly under challenge. My own view is that it is no longer tenable and that we need to find new ways of working with organisations.

New ways of describing culture

The view has been expressed that a better appreciation of the nature of organisational culture can be found by considering it as a emergent result of the conversations and negotiations between the members of an organisation (Seel, 2000). The implications of this view is that describing culture is still important but it needs to be done for different reasons and in different ways—by participative inquiry rather than external diagnosis.

A key consideration is one raised by Peter Reason—“who owns the knowledge, and thus who can define the reality?” (1994, p. 325) The classical approach is predicated on ‘change from the outside’ while the new paradigm looks for collaborative inquiries. If culture is co-created by the members of an organisation, it is they who should jointly inquire into it.

Secondly, the rationalistic basis of most questionnaires cannot tap into our deepest understandings of culture. When I facilitate a cultural inquiry I offer a range of approaches, allowing participants to choose those which seem to offer them the most creative ways of discovering for themselves. This process of self-discovery, undertaken in a collaborative context, is crucial for the successful understanding of an organisation’s culture.

In the following sections I give some brief details of the types of approaches I offer. Some are suitable for individual work, others better done in pairs or small groups. During a inquiry session I encourage people to explore a range of techniques, working with as many different people as they can.

I do not claim any novelty for what is outlined below. Some of them are widely known and used by consultants and facilitators. I owe a particular debt to Adrian McLean (see Marshall & McLean 1985) who introduced me to a number of these approaches. One or two I think I might have ‘invented’ or developed but in this business it is never a good idea to claim primacy—the chances are that someone will have got there before you.

What they all have in common is an attempt to help people work creatively to discover aspects of their culture that they didn’t know they knew. They are also designed to offer variety, to tap into people’s creativity and, not least, to be fun and energising.


This simple exercise in the use of metaphor is well-known and usually leads to some hilarity. But it has a serious purpose and can offer some good insights. The basic format is to invite participants to complete a sentence of the form: “If <our organisation> was a <category> it would be a <example> because…” where the category could be a mode of transport or a soap opera character or a football team and so on. (Both here and in the ‘complete the sentence’ exercise below, <our organisation> should be replaced by the name of the organisation.) The exercise can be done either individually or in pairs. If people work alone they can be invited to either write down or draw their answer. But if people work alone it is important that they have time for discussion with others to draw out the ‘because’:

“If <our organisation> was an animal it would be a hyena because we’re sneaky and we feed on the scraps of other people's ideas.”

“If <our organisation> was a mode of transport it would be a Rolls Royce because our quality is excellent but perhaps we’re just a bit too comfortable.”

In the conversations which ensue, tacit dimensions of the organisation become explicit and organisational values become open to view.

Heroes & villains

Every organisation has its quota of characters; people who stand out because of the deeds or their character. They can often be thought of in terms of folk tale categories: hero, villain, trickster, fool, etc. The key point is that these characterisations don’t only depend on the nature of the individuals concerned but also reflect the culture of the organisation. Behaviour considered heroic in one culture may be villainous in another.

In pairs or small groups, tell stories about the heroes, villains, fools and tricksters in the organisation—past and present. It isn’t necessary to name them and it is important to remember that gossip isn’t the purpose here, it is to discover what values and meanings are significant in the organisation.

Draw or model the culture

Modern organisational life is full of words: memos, reports, briefings, e-mails, and so on. The opportunity to put words aside can be both scary and liberating. The blank sheet of paper can seem very daunting to those of us who are not used to expressing ourselves graphically.

I do two things to help people overcome their resistance. Firstly, I try to use the word ‘sketch’ rather than, or in addition to, ‘draw’. It seems to lack the overtones of expertise which many associate with drawing—“I can’t draw” is a phrase I often hear. I also invite people, when faced with the mystery of the blank page, to start making marks regardless and just see what emerges; something always does. I never cease to be amazed and moved at the pictures which result from this exercise. Funny, poignant and perceptive, they expose the parts of culture which mere words cannot reach.

Another option is to invite people to model the culture with playdough or plasticine. I don’t use this as much, perhaps because the results don’t usually have the depth of detail in them, but it can be very powerful for the participants.

A third possibility is to use collage. Provide a range of magazines, coloured paper, scissors, glue, stick-on shapes, etc and let people create a collage which expresses the culture. In a similar way, models can also be made by a process of bricolage (Lévi-Strauss 1972/1962), using whatever comes to hand in the room or environment. Again, I don’t use these approaches so much myself, perhaps because they seem to lack the freedom of drawing but there is no doubt that they can be very energising and enjoyable for participants.

As with all the other approaches which can be initiated by an individual working alone, it is essential to share and explore the implications of the finished piece. The creative act may help surface the cultural forms, the conversations will help crystallise them. Indeed, although I usually invite people to do this exercise alone, I have experimented with inviting them to do it in pairs, which certainly helps the conversations.

Find an object

This one is deceptively simple: just wander around, outdoors or in, until you find something which seems to sum up or symbolise the essence of the culture. Then bring it back to the group and share what prompted you to choose it; in what ways it says something about the organisation.

When this exercise is at its most effective there is no artifice, no forcing of image or metaphor. Instead, the participant journeys in a state of watchful anticipation waiting for the right object to present itself.

The word ‘object’ needs to be interpreted lightly—sometimes it is a place or natural feature which seems to be most appropriate. Then, instead of bringing the object to the group it may be necessary to bring the group to the object.

Complete the sentences

A good exercise for those who like words is ‘complete the sentence’. I offer a series of incomplete statements which participants use to surface some key cultural facts. Useful sentences include: ‘our organisation always…’; our organisation never…’; ‘our organisation loves…’; ‘our organisation fears…’; ‘our organisation desires…’; ‘our organisation hates…’; etc.


You return from two weeks holiday to discover that your organisation has made the front pages. What is the story? What do the broadsheets say? What do the tabloids say?

Unofficial induction

Many organisations have an induction programme which is designed to familiarise newcomers and equip them with the things they need to know. But how often do they tell you what you really need?

Participants are invited to decide what they would tell newcomers, what experiences they would like them to have, what visits they might usefully make and who they should meet and speak with so that they will be equipped to deal with the reality of the culture.

Tell stories

Stories lie at the heart of culture; they sustain it and give it life. But the prevailing culture in Western society, with its positivist and materialist emphases, makes it difficult to recognise our stories or to tell them. Stories are seen as suitable for children but not adults—especially in the work place. But some people are beginning to work with story and are finding it very productive. Peter Reason and Peter Hawkins (1988) offer a good introduction to some ways in which this can be done.

For those who are able, it can be very productive to tell a story which somehow captures the essence of the organisation. It can be any kind of story: saga, romance, mystery, fantasy and so on. The aim is not to mimic events or people in the organisation but to create an original work which mirrors some key aspects of the culture.

Another possible use of words is to invite people to write a poem instead of a story (see Perren, 1999). For some the smaller form will be easier, for others more daunting. Those who like the miniature and the encouragements of form might like to try their hands at the haiku—a stanza of exactly seventeen syllables.


Your organisation has just won an award. What was it for? Who received it? What difference did it make?


How do outsiders describe your organisation? What do newcomers say? Each can bring an illuminating perspective because they are not immersed in the culture—‘acculturated’, as the anthropologists say. If you have a chance, ask them.

Amateur anthropologist

What would an anthropologist say about the organisation? Adopt the perspective of an anthropologist and inquire into possible meanings for some of the everyday aspects of your organisation’s life. Some of the things to consider would include dress codes, meetings, rewards, environment, language, etc. What actually goes on? What does this imply about the culture? The culture check list (Seel, 1998) may help here.

Body parts

This is a variation of the metaphor approach which can provide some useful information about subcultures. I have used this question with the IT department of a large corporation. I was working with a group of about twenty people who were inquiring into their departmental culture. I gave everyone a piece of paper with the outline of a body on it. If the corporation were a body, I asked, what organ would the IT department be? The results surprised everyone, including me. There was absolutely no unanimity, which in itself was a significant cultural finding about the sense of identity of the department.

Alien visitor

Imagine you are an intelligent visitor from Mars. You’ve just been to the House of Commons, which was confusing. You try to think of possible explanations for what you have seen. You come up with a number of hypotheses: it provides custodial care for socially deviant middle-aged men; a place to practice farmyard impressions; somewhere for vagrants to sleep in the afternoon, and so on... You now visit your organisation. How do you make sense of what you observe? Develop a number of hypotheses.

Organisational Simulation

A final approach, used extensively by Adrian McLean, is to invite members of the organisation to participate in an organisational simulation. He uses ORGsim (Grinnell, 1983). The value is in the debrief, of course. By looking at the way people organised and managed the tasks required by the simulation (the manufacture of greetings cards) it is possible to expose aspects of the culture.

For instance, some years ago, he ran a simulation with senior executives from a UK motor manufacturer. At the end of day one they had not produced a single greetings card! Instead, they formed themselves into management and union negotiating teams and spent the whole time arguing about conditions and practices.

Describing culture—what next?

Expressive means of inquiry such as these provide rich descriptions of a culture but a problem seems to arise: what next? What can you do with all this rich data—the drawings, stories, anecdotes and conversations which have been produced? For a long time I had no answer to these questions.

Indeed the traditional questionnaire approach seemed to score much better here, precisely because you can score them. It is easy to translate the questionnaire results into numbers and tables and come up with a comfortingly objective-seeming set of measurements. Of course, this is also its disadvantage: culture cannot be reduced to a set of numbers but we do feel a need to have something tangible to ‘get our teeth into’. If not numbers, then what? An approach derived from complexity theory may provide an answer.

Small set of simple rules

One of the key findings coming out of the investigations into complex adaptive systems is that complex behaviour can be generated from simple interactions. John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ was one of the earliest examples. By repeatedly applying two very simple rules to a grid of squares which were either white or black, Conway was able to produce some remarkably stable and organised patterns. In 1986 Craig Reynolds used the simple rules approach to model the flocking behaviour of birds. After some work he managed to come up with just three simple rules (Reynolds 1987):


Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flock mates.


Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flock mates.


Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flock mates.

These three rules are sufficient to generate flocking behaviour in his computer-generated ‘boids’. A number of things are noteworthy: firstly, there is no leader who says. ‘follow me’; at any time any flock member could be the ‘leader’. Secondly, each member follows the same rules; there is no hierarchy of rules. Thirdly, each member is only concerned with what its neighbours are doing; there is no attempt to try to comprehend the behaviour of the whole. Fourthly, the rules are not directly concerned with global-level behaviour; the appearance of flocking is an ‘emergent’ property resulting from all of the mutual interactions between members.

The discovery that simple interactions can lead to complex results has also inspired a number of people interested in organisational life. One of the first attempts took place with the Phoenix fire brigade in Arizona. They realised that fire-fighting does not permit time for traditional command and control methods. Instead, each fire-fighter has to be autonomous but still able to work in a way that leads to the required outcomes.

After considering the possibility that there were some simple underlying rules which might could govern the situation they come up with just five words:


Prevent harm.




Be nice.

These three rules permit a wide range of behaviours but still constrain individuals to work in ways which serve the greater purpose.

More recently, a number of organisations have been experimenting with the use of simple rules as a strategic device (Eisenhardt & Sull, 2001, Institute of Medicine, 2001). An interesting example is The Institute of Medicine in the USA, for instance, which has come up with ten rules which, it claims, will improve the quality and safety of health care in the country.

I have used a similar approach in my own facilitation, sometimes offering a small set of simple rules to workshop participants:




Be honest


Be respectful


Take risks


Be appreciative

These rules are always well-received and generally felt to be both necessary and sufficient.

‘As if’ rules

Rules such as these are explicit and designed ‘from the outside’, as if were. But I believe that there may also be tacit rules which underpin culture, similar to Scott-Morgan’s ‘unspoken rules of the game’ (1994). Because they are not explicit or articulated their status is ambiguous. I prefer to call them ‘as if’ rules: the cultures operates as if it was being generated by a set of rules.

After all, as far as I know, geese do not apply Reynolds’ three rules when flying south; Phoenix fire-fighters do not mentally rehearse their rules before entering a burning building; workshop members do not check the flipchart before speaking. However, they may act as if they were using the rules. The rules provide a simple and convenient way of making the behaviour visible. Indeed, they do something more, for once laid bare in this way the rules are open to scrutiny.

Expressing culture

For some time now I have been experimenting with the use of a small set of simple rules to express the essence of an organisation’s culture. The approach seems to be very successful: clients take to the idea very readily and the rules which are generated seem to strike a deep chord with those involved.

The procedure is quite simple. After undertaking a cultural inquiry using some of the approaches outlined above, I give a brief outline of the simple rules approach and then invite the participants to brainstorm possible rules which I note on a flipchart. The usual brainstorming rules apply: no comment or criticism of other people’s contributions, anything is acceptable, and so on. My role is to record the suggestions and occasionally to invite people to reframe their contributions so that they are in the form of a rule.

My experience to date suggests that there is a point, usually after about two full sheets of paper, when the rules dry up. It is worth allowing a pause and then encouraging more input. People will usually find their ‘second wind’ and generate quite a few more. When this second batch also comes to a halt I tend to stop the process.

I now invite people to vote for the rules which would seem to best generate the culture. Everyone has, say, four votes which they can cast in any way they like. I may give out adhesive dots or just ask people to tick against the rules which seem ‘best’ to them. People can give all four votes to one rule or spread them about among up to four different rules.

So far, the results have always been clear-cut. Typically three or four rules have stood out from the rest. Sometimes there are one or two which tie for fourth or fifth place but the top three always seem obvious once the voting is over. Furthermore, I have not had any dissent when the process is over; everyone seems to be satisfied.

One thing which I have noticed, though, is that the top rules often come from the later flipchart sheets. It seems as if it takes a bit of time to surface the deep rules which are really representative of the culture; that is why I try to encourage the brainstorming process to continue even when it seems to have run out of steam.

The result of the process is a set of rules which encapsulate the culture and which can be inspected by everybody. The heart of the culture has been made explicit and tangible. Questions can then be asked: Do we like them? Should we change them? How can we change them? How can we reinforce them? Are the behaviours they ‘generate’ the behaviours which the organisation wants or needs?

For instance, one homelessness charity came up with the following rules:


Never give up on a client.


Be honest.


If in doubt, take the risk.


Be respectful.

They were justifiably pleased with their performance as an organisation and felt that these rules encapsulated what was unique about their approach. They wanted to reinforce and build upon what they had articulated. Other sets of rules give a less rosy picture:


Don’t make mistakes


Work long hours


Don’t put your head above the parapet


Cover your back

This organisation was not happy with its current culture but the point remains the same: once the rules have been articulated change becomes a possibility.

Changing culture

Describing culture is rarely an end in itself. The purpose is usually because of some felt need to change or at least to find out if change is necessary. A separate article would be needed to do justice to the subject of cultural change. Here I can do no more than sketch out a few of the issues. Most importantly, attitudes to change vary in the traditional and new paradigm approaches.

From the classical perspective it is necessary to describe (diagnose) both the current and desired culture, and then formulate a plan to move from one to the other. Only after all this has been done can change begin. One organisation I worked with insisted on following this process; it took a year to complete and then just when they were ready to begin ‘implementation’ a major reorganisation meant that the whole project was put on hold indefinitely. Major change programmes increasingly fall foul of this sort of outside influence and the grand plans of organisation development specialists crumble to dust.

There is another way. Consider the following quotation:

Culture is made visible by culture-shock, by subjecting oneself to situations beyond one’s normal interpersonal competence and objectifying the discrepancy as an entity; it is delineated through an inventive realization of that entity following the initial experience. (Wagner 1975:9)

Roy Wagner is writing about the experience of the anthropologist when encountering a different set of practices and assumptions in the host society during field work. He could equally be speaking of any member of an organisation wishing to discover more about that organisation’s culture. Making culture visible is an important part of beginning the negotiations which might lead to culture change.

Indeed, my view is that ‘describing culture’ does not precede culture change—it is a part of the process of changing the culture. As our culture is made explicit we will inevitably start to change and the more people who are involved in the process of discovery and description, the faster the change will occur. That is why participative forms of inquiry are so much better than diagnostic questionnaires. When people inquire together they find themselves actively engaged in an organic process of change which offers them the possibility of co-creating a new culture and a new future. The creative and collaborative approaches outlined above are a key resource for this approach to change.


I would like to thank Adrian McLean, Roger Harrison, Arthur Battram and Alistair Moffatt for their helpful and encouraging comments on earlier drafts of this article. Their assistance was invaluable.  


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(c) 2002 Richard Seel

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Last modified: 12th January 2008

Wagner, R. (1975), The Invention of Culture, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Wilkins, A. L. and Patterson, K. J. (1985), “You Can’t Get There From Here: What Will Make Culture-Change Projects Fail”,. in Kilmann, R. H., Saxton, M. J., Serpa, R. and Associates (Eds.), Gaining Control of the Corporate Culture, pp. 262-291, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

(c) 2002 Richard Seel

This article is indexed here.