20th April 2017
Sam Dods

A simple model for organisational culture

What does “culture” mean to you?


Is it some sort of “excellence” in the arts like a night out at the opera? Is it the traits associated with a historic period like Roman culture? Or is it what we take to be the characteristic behaviours and beliefs of an ethnic group or country?


When I was at school in New Zealand putting on an upper class English accent and saying something like “I say old boy” somehow described England; but so did the phrase “whinging poms”.


In politics today we see increasing fragmentation and intolerance with populist leaders like Trump, Putin and Erdoğan appealing to their voters with dreams of returning to a golden age in their countries’ history: Make America Great Again.


Is there any truth in these simplistic ideas of common culture? No – well almost none. And where there is some truth it normally only exists/existed for a very small percentage of the populations being described in a specific time and place: So while many may continue to aspire to the “American dream” of prosperity and upward mobility very few achieve it.


And of the few that do succeed what percentage live the dream imagined by those aspiring to get there?


Put simply; culture is complicated.


The same is true for organisational culture. There is limited consensus on a number of aspects including what it is, how it influences behaviour, whether it can be changed and if so then what the key factors are that affect it.


I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise since each of us is complex; we’re only aware of about 5% of what’s going on in our mind and while some of our non-conscious or unconscious mental activity like involuntary control of heart beat doesn’t affect our behaviour other factors such as repressed memories certainly do affect behaviour – unconsciously.


So when a number of us work together in organisations our unconscious minds communicate unconsciously creating more complexity.


And when you include the impact of the other organisational factors that affect culture such as purpose (or lack of), values, organisational design, physical setting, clothing / uniform, as well as the non-organisational factors such as families, friends, other groups and wider society you get true complexity.


When engaged with effectively this complexity and the unconscious activity behind it can generate amazing results. It can also generate devastating results that affect both organisational performance and people’s quality of life.


As a result, considerable effort has been put into trying to understand culture and how / if it can be changed. As part of this drive models of varying complexity have been developed to help understand and work with culture.


I have developed a simple model to help people understand where their organisations are in terms of culture and where they might aspire to be.


The model is based primarily on the level of trust within an organisation and includes aspects of the thinking of Melanie Klein, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor and Frederic Laloux.


It is a two pole spectrum from “survival” to “evolution” as illustrated below.


Koru organsational culture model



Most organisations operate nearer the survival end of the spectrum which has a number of common attributes: they are more hierarchical and rely on authority and control to get things done. Since decision making is concentrated with relatively few people at the top of the hierarchy these organisations tend to struggle with the increasing complexity and ambiguity of our world, often reacting relatively slowly. They also tend to struggle with high levels of employee disengagement.


While they may be slower to react they can be very efficient, with well-developed processes and systems to maximise productivity and minimise variability.


These organisations may have values but they are typically not lived, with the prime motivator being financial success.



Organisations at the evolutionary end of the spectrum are characterised by high levels of trust and have more in common with self-organising natural evolution since initiative is often bottom up and there is little or no centralised authority imposed on the system.


Hierarchies are typically flattened in favour of self-governing teams and centralised administrations are significantly reduced and exist to support the teams.


Since there is no centralised decision making, mechanisms are required to maintain a common purpose and culture as well as manage conflict and the generation / implementation of bottom up ideas.


These organisations tend to live their values and share a common purpose.


While the vast majority of organisations operate nearer the survival end of the spectrum there is increasing interest in the evolution end of the spectrum, with an increasing number of organisations adopting the principles to some degree.



Organisational culture is undoubtedly complex and has a significant impact on performance. While this complexity has resulted in many transformational programs failing to deliver desired results it is clear that culture can be evolved given the right conditions – in many respects the same sorts of conditions that give rise to successful human relationships: a determination to make it work, a willingness to take responsibility for our contribution to the culture and an understanding that it takes time.


This blog is the final in a series of three on the key areas of organisation development that was introduced in an earlier blog.


What do you think? I would welcome feedback; is this sort of simple model useful, where are the holes in the thinking and

6th April 2017
Sam Dods

What is organisational design and why does it matter?

Start-ups often have a clear idea what they want to achieve and why – they have purpose.


But sometimes in the rush to get going the organisation’s design is forgotten. And even when it is considered at the outset, organisations often fail to evolve the design as they grow and change.


This can seriously impact on organisational effectiveness; limiting it in a number of ways including restricted growth, poor financial performance and in the worst situation financial failure.


Organisational design is the second area discussed in the previous introduction to organisational development blog and involves optimising and aligning the design of the organisation’s structure, processes and systems so that it can achieve the organisations objectives – objectives described in missions, visions, strategies or purpose.


The primary process for most businesses from marketing to sales to delivery typically cuts across functional departments such as sales & marketing, operations and finance. The structure, processes and systems therefore need to be considered as a whole since a change in any area can impact on others; a change in departmental structure could, for example require a change to the processes or vice versa.



Start-ups typically have little in the way of formalised structure, roles or processes. The founders often have a clear sense of purpose and work closely together with a wide span of control.


But as they grow and take on more people they structure themselves in different ways. These structures have typically involved a limited number of types of hierarchical departmental structures but there has been an increasing trend towards a range of flatter structures.


The more traditional structures are as follows:


1. Functional structure: This is the most common first step in structure as organisations grow and involves grouping people according to their functions or technical expertise e.g. sales, production, finance or HR. This has the benefit of economies of scale and improved performance of each department but they typically cut across the flow of client orders and can therefore cause issues such as lack of client focus and silo mentality.


2. Divisional structure: As organisations grow they often adopt divisional structures based on a number of factors including geographic area, product/service type or market type. While this approach does require duplication of functional departments it can be more client focused and effective at delivering its products or services. As each division is largely self-contained silo mentality can become more of an issue.


3. Matrix structure: Some larger organisations try to get the benefit of both the functional and divisional structures by supporting a number of product lines or divisions with one set of functional departments. This can theoretically be very efficient but requires people to report in two directions; ultimately to functional and product/divisional heads at the same level. This can generate significant power struggles and politics if not managed carefully.


In recent years there has been increased interest in flatter structures where there is less reliance on hierarchies and centralised command and control. Many of these approaches such as Holacracy and Frederic Laloux’s “teal” organisations are based on increased levels of trust in people and involve greater distribution of authority throughout organisations which are often split into small self-governing teams of approximately 10 to 30 people.


Central administrative teams including senior roles such as CEO are often significantly reduced and exist to serve the organisation rather than command it. The generation of ideas and initiatives therefore often shifts from top down to bottom up.


While these flatter approaches can have a number of benefits such as a more engaged work forced and more agile / adaptable organisations they can be challenging to develop and maintain and some organisations that have tried it have reverted back to more traditional structures.


An increasing number of businesses are however taking a more pragmatic approach; using a mix of structural approaches to get the best solution for their situation.


Processes / Systems

The approach to documenting organisational processes and implementing them using electronic systems depends to some degree on the organisational structure which is in turn related to the organisational culture.


More traditional hierarchical structures tend to rely on a significant depth of policies and processes to ensure compliance and repeatability. Flatter structures, on the other hand, often have a more fluid approach to process, allowing the self-governing teams to evolve their processes.


Each approach has its benefits with increased depth of documented processes potentially offering greater control, greater efficiency and repeatability, which can be particularly important in some areas such as manufacturing. The down sides however can include demotivated staff and reduced agility as any changes require significant bureaucratic effort.


In order to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of processes an increasing number of organisations are using enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. While this approach used to be restricted to larger organisations there are now a number of cost effective and powerful systems for smaller organisations developed by companies such as Xero.


ERP systems are databases that automate organisational processes or workflows. The large systems from companies such as SAP, Microsoft and Oracle offer very powerful functionality but require considerable investment to adapt the system to an organisation’s needs.


There are now an increasing number of online systems for small companies that are typically based on a core accounts or customer relationship management (CRM) systems with bolt on apps to manage various aspects of organisational activity. The adoption of these systems is likely to be accelerated in countries such as the UK where government initiatives such as Making Tax Digital (MTD) will require all businesses to adopt electronic systems.


While these systems can offer a number of benefits the adoption of the larger systems in particular are plagued with difficulties; the majority failing to achieve the most of their expected benefits or over running on budget and/or time.


A well-considered and implemented organisational design can have a significant impact on organisational performance and should therefore be reviewed periodically, and particularly when organisational direction is changed, to ensure alignment and effectiveness.


This blog is the second in a series of three on the key areas of focus of organisation development that was introduced in an earlier blog.


What do you think? If you have any thoughts or comments, please share below or send me a LinkedIn connection request.

30th March 2017
Sam Dods

Why purpose is key to us and our work


What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Are you looking forward to doing something? Meeting friends, training for a competition or going to work?


Or is it because you have to? We should meet colleagues, do some training or go to work.


The same activities but very different experiences: when we want to do things we’re typically more determined, engaged and we enjoy it.


Unfortunately, motivation often transitions from “want to” to “should do” as we get older, draining the excitement out of life and turning it into an endless to-do list.


But it doesn’t have to be that way.


I heard Dr Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s translator, speak about the importance of compassion and sense of purpose a few years ago in London but it’s only recently that I’ve really come to appreciate how important it can be to both individuals and the organisations that they work in.


I certainly appreciate that there are a number of other important factors but in my experience we’re in a much better position to overcome challenges if what we’re doing really matters to us.


In the organisational context an inspirational and well communicated common purpose that answers what the organisations does and why can have a dramatic effect on performance. To quote recent research involving interviews with 1,200 people in large UK businesses:


The evidence is solid: purpose-led organisations not only have happier staff and customers, they happen to be more profitable too.


And yet many people still feel that their organisation lacks purpose; the same research also found that 64% felt that their organisation had no clear purpose.


That’s a shame because not only does it have a detrimental impact on performance and people’s experience at work it can also have a number of secondary effects that exacerbate the situation.


For example, when people don’t know where they are going they can invest time and money into initiatives that aren’t aligned with organisational direction. Unfortunately, management often respond by trying to control these situations with approaches such as restructuring or introducing new policies or process. All steps that unintentionally communicate distrust and demotivate people.


So whether you’re struggling at home or work I’d recommend considering whether a meaningful purpose might help your situation.


This blog is the first in a series of three on the key areas of focus of organisation development that was introduced in an earlier blog.


What do you think? If you have any thoughts or comments, please share below or send me a LinkedIn connection request.


Koru helps clients understand their organisational challenges and supports them in the development and implementation of solutions. To discuss your needs please contact us.

25th January 2017
Sam Dods

What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?


To TRUST, or NOT to TRUST, that is the question.


This may seem to be an irreverent misquote of Shakespeare’s immortal line but the question really is important because of the implications it has for us, our organisations and wider society.


WITHOUT TRUST we live lives of paranoid isolation and organisations rely on increased centralised control and bureaucracy – and how do people react to this? We tend to resist, management respond by pushing and monitoring performance and we end up being disengaged and looking for another job – like the vast majority of us are apparently doing right now.


But WITH TRUST we can have lives full of satisfying relationships, and organisations don’t need to exert centralised control over its people – they are trusted to do the right thing. All management need to do is ensure that the organisation’s direction is clear and that culture, structure and processes are aligned with that direction.


But if it’s so simple why doesn’t everyone PICK TRUST?


Well for a start it’s often not a simple conscious decision. The way we relate to people and the rest of the world is typically established in early life – if our key early relationships were caring and consistent we end up trusting the people and world around us. And if not then we struggle to trust.


Since we tend to receive what we give out, our early experiences are often reinforced during the rest of our lives – “A man reaps what he sows” or to continue the misquoting: Whether you think you CAN TRUST, or you think you CAN’T TRUST — you’re right.


But it doesn’t mean we can’t change. We can spend time exploring why we struggle to trust, possibly with the support of others, and we can try some reality checking – TRUST people and see what happens.


If you’re doing this in a leadership role and want to fundamentally change the dynamics of your team, some thought will need to be put into mechanisms to make this possible. And you’re not alone there: Frederic Laloux’s “Reinventing Organisations” and approaches such as Holacracy provide lots of useful ideas.


But remember this is your unique journey so have confidence in and take notice of your emotional and intellectual responses – and enlist the support of those around you.


And remember….


To TRUST, or NOT to TRUST, that is the question.


What do you think? If you have any thoughts or comments, please share below or send me a LinkedIn connection request. Alternatively, you can see me speak at the Hauser Forum, Entrepreneurship Centre, Cambridge, UK on Thursday 26th January.

13th January 2017
Sam Dods

How can organisations improve their effectiveness?

A quick Google search on improving organisational effectiveness results in an almost infinite list approaches – often promising simple solutions with a limited number of steps.

While it can be quite bewildering there are some common themes: the importance of people, culture and business systems feature in many of them.

I’ve published posts on a number of related topics including Organisational Development that I’ll be talking about next week along with a colleague, Adam Fernandes, who’ll be discussing the growth of cloud based ERP systems to manage key business processes.

So if you’d like to know more and discuss your thoughts on improving organisational effectiveness please join us at the Hauser Forum in Cambridge on 26 January.


If you have any thoughts or comments, please share below or send me a LinkedIn connection request.