The Culture Cycle - James Heskett

Title: The Culture Cycle
Author: James Heskett
Publisher: Financial Times Press
Year: 2011
Pages: 384

James Heskett is Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus at Harvard University's Business School. When someone of his calibre weighs in on the "culture conversation," I listen.

What he contributes in this book seems like an expansion on chapter 6 ("Cult-Like Cultures") of Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. In that book, Collins and Porras explained that, "Cult-like cultures, which preserve the core, must be counterweighted with a huge does of stimulating progress" (page 136).

In this book, Heskett has put hands, feet, and statistical data on that idea.

Culture is a buzz-word in various leadership circles today.
But what do we mean by it? And how can it be shaped?

We've all been around churches, companies, and organizations where we're swept up in what's happening. What's happening seems to be exciting, larger than life, meaningful, and worth the effort. There's a sense of identity and mission that is expressed through behaviors that "fit."

And, of course, we've all been around places where none of those things are true.

The difference is captured in the concept of culture.

Heskett breaks down the complex concept of culture into 5 interlocking components:
1) Shared Assumptions: what an organization takes as "given."
2) Values & Beliefs: what an organization aspires to be
3) Behaviors: how an organization does what it does.
4) Artifacts: how an organization communicates what is important.
5) Measurement & Action: how an organization evaluates (and responds to) its performance.

These 5 components combine to form an organization's culture. Heskett links them together by explaining, "Values and beliefs shared by organization's members follow from ... assumptions. Values and beliefs are reflected in accepted behaviors of organizations members. A culture is expressed to the world beyond the organization and to its members by behaviors and what have been called 'artifacts' (dress, building design, signs). . . Related elements of measurement and action provide a means by which cultures are achieved and maintained" (39).

He also puts a heavy emphasis on the leaders of an organization taking responsibility for the culture of their organization: "Achieving and maintaining a high-performance culture is one of the most important responsibilities of leadership" (40).

But what if your current culture is counterproductive? How would you even know? Heskett highlights a few symptoms that include "an unwillingness to face the real issues while debating peripheral ones, a tendency to 'shoot the messengers bearing bad news' or squelch useful dissent, confusing rank with reason in discussions, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with members who violate values and behaviors..." (294).

All the more reason that leadership is required. Those issues are always on the brink, so Heskett advises leaders to stay out ahead of these problems by remaining vigilant, "constantly reminding the organization of the values and the expected behaviors they imply" (62).

If your current culture is counterproductive, then you need to challenge and change the culture.
Here's how (297-298):
1) Identify the gaps in performance (expected results and actual results).
2) Establish dissatisfaction in the organization with the status quo.
3) Select a few "change agents."
4) Propose changes in mission, shared assumptions, values, and behaviors.
5) Let everyone in the organization know about the ideas for changes (and solicit feedback).
6) Finalize the revisions.
7) Overcommunicate every step of the way.
8) Personally demonstrate the new desired behaviors.
9) Sort out those who aren't on-board.
10) Celebrate early steps in the new direction.
11) Remain patient.

If those 11 steps seem a little too complicated, you could always take the simpler advice of Peter Bregman (
"To start a culture change, all we need to do is two simple things: 1) Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it. 2) Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture we want to create. Then tell stories about them."

Whatever the approach - the Heskett 11-step or the Bregman 2-step...or the Kotter 8-step - is better than doing nothing and watching your organization run itself into the ground.

You'll notice from the material that I quoted from the book that I left out the middle section. Personally, I found the middle section of the book a bit heavy on data and statistics. I'm not a statistician or a CEO who does business on a global scale, so there just wasn't much there to draw me in. It's good, but it's not for me.

disclosure: This book was provided to me through the Amazon Vine program. All opinions expressed are my own.

Related Posts:
Book Review: Change Your Church for Good by Brad Powell
Book Review: 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch


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