Chapter 3Milk and Mushrooms

Around an organisation's purpose grows its culture. Culture hides in and permeates everything – history, artefacts, rituals, language and metaphors, behaviour, metrics, recognition – and for that reason is both hard to direct and incredibly potent.

Edgar Schein defines culture as:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration … A product of joint learning.1

There's a reason, jokes Tristram Carfrae of Arup,2 that culture is called culture:

like the stuff that grows on milk – it takes a while to grow, but then it stays for ever.

Others describe it as being like a thick, pervasive layer of mycelium, with the ‘evidence’ of the culture popping up like mushrooms all over the place.

Milk, mushrooms – part of the potency and value of an organisation's culture is that it is unique. It informs its brand and reputation, it cannot be stolen or replicated. A great culture increases productivity and engagement and so, ultimately, drives improved performance.3

And yet. While survey after survey shows that around 86% of CEOs consider culture to be ‘important’ or ‘very important’ in determining performance,4 culture remains extraordinarily poorly defined or understood or managed. Part of the reason for this is that it is still a relatively new field of study (and of course, part of the reason for it being a relatively new field of study is that it is hard to define!).5 The earliest ...

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