Westrums Cultural Typology Assessment

Organisational culture bears a predictive relationship with safety and performance
Contributed by

Tom Geraghty

Published June 11, 2021
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What Is Westrums Cultural Typology Assessment?

We talk a lot about organisational culture, team cultures, and "good" or "bad" cultures. And we also talk a lot about "culture change". But changing something is hard if you don't know whether you're having any effect, and can't describe the thing you're changing. Ron Westrum in his paper "A typology of organisational cultures" (2004) described three foundational cultural "typologies" that the majority of organisations could be aligned to:

Pathological (power-oriented): These organisations are characterised by low cooperation across groups and a culture of blame. Information is often withheld for personal gain.

Bureaucratic (rule-oriented): Bureaucratic cultures are preoccupied with rules and positions, and responsibilities are compartmentalised by the department, with little concern for the overall mission of the organisation.

Generative (performance-oriented): The hallmarks of a generative organisation are good information flow, high cooperation and trust, collaboration ("bridging") between teams, and conscious inquiry.

You can see a break down of the characteristics of the each culture in this table:

PathologicalBureaucraticGenerative
Power orientedRule orientedPerformance oriented
Low cooperationModest cooperationHigh cooperation
Messengers “shot”Messengers neglectedMessengers trained
Responsibilities shirkedNarrow responsibilitiesRisks are shared
Bridging discouragedBridging toleratedBridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoatingFailure leads to justiceFailure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushedNovelty leads to problemsNovelty implemented

Whilst this is certainly an over-simplification of an ambiguous and constantly changing concept of "culture", it's a really useful model to help understand current state, direction of travel, and identify areas of improvement.

Ron Westrum describes a culture of "safety" in Generative organisations, and it's easy to see how psychological safety is both increased in, and fundamental to, Generative cultures. Amy Edmondson, in 2008, described "Learning Organisations" in her paper "Is yours a learning organization?" and similarly suggested an assessment framework to measure how well an company learns and how adeptly it refines its strategies and processes.

Why Do Westrums Cultural Typology Assessment?

In 2015, Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky, and Barry O'Reilly wrote the book "Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale", which highlighted how critical culture is to performance, and highlighted Westrum's Typology model. “Instead of creating controls to compensate for pathological cultures, the solution is to create a culture in which people take responsibility for the consequences of their actions”

The 2016 state of DevOps Report also showed that Generative, performance-oriented cultures improve software delivery performance, alongside market share, productivity and profitability.

Westrum's Typologies subsequently appeared in Nicole Forsgren's book "Accelerate" in 2018, where she was able to show that generative cultures were associated with improved software delivery performance (the four Accelerate Metrics) and other organisational capabilities for learning.

How to do Westrums Cultural Typology Assessment?

Measuring organisational culture through Westrum's Organisational Typologies is conducted via surveys utilising the below questions and scoring agreement via a "Likert" scale, as shown.

  1. On my team, information is actively sought.
  2. On my team, failures are learning opportunities, and messengers of them are not punished.
  3. On my team, responsibilities are shared.
  4. On my team, cross-functional collaboration is encouraged and rewarded.
  5. On my team, failure causes enquiry.
  6. On my team, new ideas are welcomed.

You can choose to use either a 7- or 5- point Likert scale to measure agreement with these statements. A 5-point scale would be thus: (1) Strongly disagree; (2) Disagree; (3) Neither agree nor disagree; (4) Agree; (5) Strongly agree.\ \ Using 7 points would provide greater granularity, but impacts usability and accessibility.

Average these scores for your summative Westrum's Typology score. Close to zero suggests your culture is towards "Pathological", 2-3 suggests Bureaucratic, and 4-5 suggests a Generative culture:

Pathological -Bureaucratic -Generative
0-12-34-5

The individual line scores suggest areas for improvement. For example, if your score for statement 4 is particularly low, investigate and employ practices to improve collaboration between different functional teams, ask teams what challenges they face in communication and collaboration, and facilitate informal gatherings or events where people in different teams can get to know each other.

Points of note:

Try to keep this survey anonymous. Honest answers are of utmost importance.

Resist the temptation to measure too frequently. Once per quarter or every six months is appropriate.

Avoid setting score improvement as a goal - be conscious that GoodHart's Law means that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.

If you have a large enough organisation, or enough data over time, you could try applying data science practices to identify outliers in the data that can indicate particular areas of concern, for particular teams, or disruptive events that correlate with a dip in scores.

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