I was wrong about Culture – “Pasted Values”

I’d rather be wrong than right. For some time it appears that my thinking about culture has been wrong. It probably explains why I have had little success trying to change it. I still think that seeing culture is an important first step. However, the model about the underlying principles that drive culture is obviously wrong. (The model is presented here and here).

The model is based on the work of Edgar Schein (My mentor Marc Burgauer introduced me to his work). Edgar Schein’s model talks about espoused values and assumptions. I had interpreted this to mean that behaviour in an organisation (in a Karl Weick sense) is driven by the underlying value function of the organisation. To represent the value function, I use the financial definition as it is the most useful and general model that I’m aware of and can be used to model learning. The hypothesis was that if we can change an organisation’s values, the behaviour would change.


Today whilst listening to Charles Duhig’s “The Power of Habit” I realised that my hypothesis was wrong and I had been ignoring the obvious. Culture is not just an expression of an organisation’s values, it is also based on a set of organisational habits.

Imagine an excel spreadsheet where we write some function:

=if(X = Y,”do A”, “do B”).

If X = 10 and Y = 10, we would get the result “do A”. If X = 10 and Y = 11, we would get the result “do B”. Currently X = 10 and Y = 10 which means the function returns “do A”.

Now if we change the excel function to be:

=if(X = 2Y,”do A”, “do B”).

If X = 9 and Y = 9, we would now get the result “do B”.

That was my naive interpretation of culture. All I needed to do was help people see a new way of looking at the world (the phenomenology), a new value function and the behaviour would change.

What I had failed to understand was that most people do not re-evaluate their value function every time they do something. Instead, its as if they copy the Excel Cell and “Paste Value” so that the sell always contains the value “do A”. Either that, or they have turned off automatic calculations and need to press <F9> to update the value in the cell to “do B”.

In “Thinking Fast & Slow”, Daniel Kahneman talks about System One and System Two. System One is automatic whereas System Two is the one that does critical thinking and evaluation. We need system one which is fast and unthinking because system two is slow and takes more effort. In effect, when we encounter a culture, most of it operates in System One and my solution was to engage System Two.

So I’ve broken my model of understanding for culture. I was wrong. My prize is that to understand culture change, I need to know about “habit change”, addiction, CBT, and a bunch of other stuff . If you know of any good resources or other things I need to know, please leave them in a comment.

Today I realised I was wrong. Now I have better chance of a better tomorrow.

About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

7 responses to “I was wrong about Culture – “Pasted Values”

  • daviddylan

    I found “Inside the nudge unit” by David Halpern (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inside-Nudge-Unit-changes-difference/dp/0753556553) has some useful insights into how people’s behaviour (habits) can be changed. That’s about behaviour, not culture or values. In my view, an individual’s values rarely change, so perhaps organisational values change by shifting emphasis – changing the amount of prominence different people’s values get? And you can go some way towards that by changing behaviours.

    I also like “Triggers” by Marshall Goldsmith (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Triggers-Creating-Behavior-Lasts-becoming-Person/dp/0451497864/) which includes numerous examples of how the author has helped others to change.

    Thinking specifically about CBT, Robinson publish a series of books “Overcoming …” (overcoming.co.uk) My 8-year-old son saw me looking at them in the library, pointed at Overcoming Anger and Irritability and told me I should get that one. Hmph!

    For a whirlwind tour of the gaps between models of thought and what neuroscience tells us about how humans think, you might enjoy “Good thinking” by Denise D Cummins (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-Thinking-Seven-Powerful-Influence/dp/0521145503/).

  • Gery

    I suggest you take a look at Solution Focus Brief Therapy. Then you may get interested in digging into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work if you have not already. It may help dissolve the confusion introduced thousand years ago by Plato and his cronies. Also the work about cognition without content e.g by Dan Hutto may be of interest.

  • jbrains

    This feedback loop between habits and values explains directly why I persist in teaching techniques as a path towards “better” behavior. Not the path, and not the best path, but a necessary ingredient. It also explains why I cringe so much when I see some of our esteemed colleagues apply unwarranted superlatives in their disdain for techniques. Granted, if we pretend that techniques alone solve the problem, then we clearly also run into significant roadblocks to improvement, but, you know, habits matter.

  • xmarcomilonex

    Have you come across Neurological Levels, used in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming)?

  • andy murthar

    einsteins theory of madness

  • Julian Everett

    Hi Chris, I think your model is still essentially correct – what you have identified here is the new insight that creating, or retaining the option to modify, the value function also has a cost (as well as a benefit). Most of the time, and for sound evolutionary reasons, we don’t pay that cost and simply commit to a given value function once it proves to be working reasonably well in a given context (i.e. it becomes dominant/default). In doing so we form a habit and as a result move into System One thinking. We only unlearn our habit/move back into System Two when the values or context changes substantially enough that our current function is not longer a good fit in an obvious enough way. Then we are prompted into paying the cost of modifying our value function, i.e. going from Fn to Fn+1. I don’t think you need to understand addiction, etc to explain what you are describing here

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