Cultural excavations

Cultural excavations

​Notes from a conversation with Lisa Hirsch about cultural assessment. First published in 2013.

​I first met Lisa in 2006 in at the International Storytelling Centre in Tennessee. I treasure her handout on ‘questions that open doors’ and offer you from it the question ‘what dragons did you slay along the way?’

Wind forward seven years to 2013 and we are sitting in the Wellcome Collection café catching up and comparing practices. Here’s a bit of Lisa’s generous, gracious part in that conversation


Culture is a pattern of beliefs, values and expectations shared by members of an organization that powerfully shapes the behaviours of individuals and  groups.To change a culture, you need to understand: the culture you inhabit today; what you want to achieve; and, the culture that will align you with that desired future.

And you need a communication and engagement strategy to lead you from today to tomorrow.

In assessing the culture you are trying to find the unspoken “rules” and assumptions that govern behaviour. There are lots of ways of doing this: surveys, focus groups, studying cultural ‘artifacts’ like policies and procedures and informal clues like humour, information on bulletin boards, stories about who the heroes and villains are,the use and decoration of space, how visitors are received.

Lisa’s method takes the following steps:

1. Find a senior sponsor who will commit to present the findings to the leadership team

2. Choose a cultural assessment team

3. Ask them in turn to select participants.

Maybe you end up with a group of around 100, with a handful of externals and an inner group of 10 or 12 internals. Then the extended team has three ways of looking at the culture.

First they conduct interviews.

Then they go on a tour of the organisation, examining artifacts and activities and the meaning behind them - the visitor, one of Lisa’s team unencumbered by assumption, can pick things up, brush the dust off them, hold them up to the light and wonder what they mean.

These artifacts and activities can be catalogued and documented and carried forward to the next stage.

These two parts lead to a series of whole-day workshops with 15 – 20 people, cross sections of the organisation, people of short- and long-term tenure, diverse in perspectives, people who are willing to speak up and able to think about whole organisation even if they are part of a sub culture. Together, these people make an ‘Insider’s Guide’ to how things actually work and what really matters.

They start by telling stories, describing behaviours and the gap between what the company line is and what people do in practice.

Then they group the behaviours into clusters around, e.g. communications, decision making, leadership.

Next, groups work to probe behind each behaviour and identify the underlying rule that governs the behaviour.

This is where the archaeological dig or dive metaphor comes into play: what is on the surface does not tell the whole story of the culture: you have to dig or dive to piece things together that have become unspoken, or hidden. Often you don’t immediately know how a cultural rule arose and have to trace it back to out-of-date behaviour that often made sense at an earlier time.

At the end of the workshop day, the cultural assessment team pulls everything together and draws a final list of rules and implications. The bolder the better.

So, for example, the unwritten rule in a workplace where promotions are dominated by.   favouritism might be ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’.

Once half a dozen key unwritten rules have been derived from this process, they are played back to everybody who has been involved, not just as an act of validation, but also to adjust the rules that will be taken back to the leadership team. For example, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ might get adjusted to ‘excellence is not a core value’, a bigger and better-judged frame in which to develop the kinds of approach that will address this cultural failing.

There are a few key essentials to help this work go well.

The leadership role is vital here in listening, in holding open the space, in taking symbolic actions that will emphasis the backing for the change, and in making sure that the following change programmes don’t accidentally add back in controls and measures that counteract the intended cultural shifts.

It’s also important to remember, acknowledge and carry forward strengths, and to allow room to mourn losses.

It is, as Lisa says, subtle and sensitive work, that needs a historical perspective, a sense of enquiry and of humility about the best way to intervene.

It’s also important to think about the application of the assessment. The whole idea is to surface the unspoken rules that govern the organization, both those that serve it, and those that might get in the way. This is most relevant as the organization is introducing a new way of doing things or thinking about a major change, whether that’s introducing a new product, a merger, handling a reduction in force. In each of those cases, understanding the informal cultural “rules” can be tremendously helpful, in the way the context is communicated, the confidence employees have in the “new world” and the trust they have about what the leaders say.

So it is about knowledge in the service of action.

The communications campaign that runs alongside this is, says Lisa, definitely a campaign, constituency by constituency, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. There are lots of practical suggestions in the chapter she has written about this, for how to go about that. The principles still apply, although the tools, apart from one:one conversation have largely been overtaken by how developments in social media guide our thinking now.


There are several levels of really nice design in here, which chime with the VWL method: building multiple perspectives through interviews, examining ‘artifacts’, finding the shadow organisation, the hidden rules behind the stories of the organisation at work, allowing for long timelines, tracking back through history for how today came about, making something together, as a way to play and probe more deeply at the same time, making a kind of neutral and inviting third space in which to construct insights, repeated rounds of engagement and playing back, which democratise the process, the symbolism of investing in a process like this, in which the leaders make themselves open, vulnerable even, to what will come to them and promise to act on it.


“Culture and communications: A Critical Part of Reengineering” in 'Reengineering Healthcare’ edited by Paul Lenz and Anju Sikka (American College of Physician Executives 1998)