2 minute read

Recent changes in an organizing group I'm involved in have given rise to questions in my mind about how well we're doing, not just in terms of outputs, but in terms of cultural characteristics.

In the past, I've used the model that Westrum created for assessing organizational culture to help put puzzle pieces on the table, not only to "see a bigger picture" but also to see what gaps exist (i.e. "missing pieces"). Even when you do this at some point, time goes on, and the picture changes, new boundaries are defined, and new gaps form, so it's important to do this on a regular basis.

Example of Westrum cultural characteristics

Personally, I have experienced more of the pathological characteristics, such as "messengers shot", "bridging discouraged", "...scapegoating", and "novelty crushed". Others probably have experienced a swatch of these and others.

However, there is also a solid basis of improved and positive characteristics in this group, namely "modest cooperation" and "failure leads to inquiry". We regularly encourage verbally and async in chat, and have some of the groundwork laid for peer ownership of responsibilities and risks.

What I like about the Westrum grid above is that each cell value is a pretty good label, categorically speaking, but it can be difficult to understand what to do or avoid concretely. Everything is new to someone at some point, and though I have some experiences with how to move and improve some of these aspects (e.g. from bridging tolerated to encouraged, or the levels of novelty management), there is power in group-think.

For those and for other reasons, I'm in search of a list of "attractor" and "detractor" behaviors that the group can use to A) sample the aggregate feelings of the group, and B) use as concrete "hotspots" to either improve upon (if deemed negative) or maintain/safeguard (if deemed positive). So far I have:


  • Too much outspokenness, not enough chance to speak
  • No voice, no real representation
  • Exclusive grip on wheelhouses
  • No healthy peer ownership
  • Silos, low collaboration, low emotional bucket fill
  • Shutdowns, cutoffs
  • Rephrasings
  • "Splaining" and assumptive attitudes
  • Lack of recognition, lack of constructive feedback
  • Public admonishment, not encouragements or recognition
  • Assignments and effort that is toil or low impact
  • No/low mindful group facilitation
  • Unsafe/alienating behavior
  • Ego/hubristic reasoning


  • Encouraging good ideas
  • Hearing from everyone, not "it's obvious"
  • Always assign peer (and/or assists)
  • Prioritize "preventative maintenance" characteristics over double-time out
  • Purposeful attempt to understand; ask open questions
  • Rotate wheelhouses; opportunity to change
  • Pre-agreement on time spend / limits / timeboxes
  • Purposeful recognition / appreciations / thanks
  • Proactive communication of bandwidth; ownership of comms
  • When work is done/blocked, swarm help w/ permission
  • Obtain permission before asking for labor, time/physical or emotional

I'm a big fan of introspection, starting with the person in the mirror, so I'm approaching this as a group ask to help me personally as a friend understand the group and myself more. However, I try not to ask people to do free work, certainly not work that doesn't benefit them in some way. As an exercise, it has it's own virtues not limited to me anyway, but I also think that the outcomes can lead us to a place of constructive discussion in the upcoming organizer's 'summit' (a 4hr quarterly Zoom) where we can all get a better picture and agree to how to improve the culture of the group.

For a holiday weekend, I've already spent about 4hrs (not to mention tossing and turning) on this, so in many ways this has been a "long weekend" for me.