So You Want to Create a Culture?

Culture is “in” these days, so I get a lot of inquiries about creating a culture, usually around “engagement” or “service” or “innovation.” My typical response is “Why do you want to do that?” or, alternatively, “Can you give me an example of what you have in mind?” Why don’t I just say, “Sure, and here is how you do it.”?1 There are several reasons.

First, unless you are an entrepreneur founding a new enterprise you cannot “create” a culture. Culture is what a group or organization has learned during its lifetime. If you are a leader of an established organization you already have a culture. In fact, if you have been around for a while, you are so embedded in your culture that you are not aware of how much it determines your daily behavior. Culture for you and your employees is like water for the fish.

Second, along with my question of “Why would you want to do that?” I would next ask, “What is worrying you? What do you observe that causes you to want to create something new?” Your present culture shows up in your employees’ or customers’ behavior. What’s the problem? Are your employees not engaged enough and why does this worry you? Are you feeling that your organization needs to be more innovative and you don’t see much new stuff coming from its members? Are your customers suddenly unhappy with your product or service? In other words, before you start messing with culture, what is the “business problem” that worries you and that you are trying to fix?

Third, once you have a clear sense of your business problem and have worked out what you want to change by projecting forward what you would like to see in the future in the way of concrete behavior, then you are finally ready to ask the culture question: “Will our existing culture aid or hinder the business change goal that I have defined?” Now you realize that before you can “create a new culture” you had better examine your present culture and see whether it will help or hinder.

Now, fourth, you have to confront the reality that your culture consists of many components and operates at different levels of “depth” or awareness. Your culture is a set of beliefs or assumptions that have worked for you and given meaning to your present way of working. It covers how you think strategically, what your brand or identity is, how you structure yourself and the daily business processes by which you operate.  Yes, it actually covers all those elements. As to level of awareness, at the deepest level are your beliefs, values, and assumptions that made your organization successful, your core identity. At the surface, there are all the norms and rules of behavior that are embedded in your incentive and reward systems.2

Fifth, now that you understand what you are dealing with, you want to assess your present culture in order to figure out whether or not you have to change some culture elements or bring in some new values and processes. Because some of the culture elements are deep and out of awareness, you need to do group interviews to get at what they are, what the DNA of your culture is. That will lead you to interviews and surveys that will tell you not only what some of the norms and behavioral rules of your organization presently are, but will also enable you to find out what your employees might prefer. Now you are finally ready to examine whether or not the existing culture you have will aid or hinder your “fixing” your business problem.

Sixth, you now realize that your biggest problem in moving forward is how you will manage the change process—that is, how you will harness what you have learned about culture and how it operates in a change program that will (a) draw on your cultural strengths and (b) either change cultural elements that are barriers to your desired change and/or create some new norms and values that you desire.3 But remember, those new elements won’t take hold unless they fit into your existing culture.

Hear my closing comments on culture and change management in this video clip from the 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, and feel free to share your Likes, Tweets, and Comments via the social media buttons below.

Visit our video library to view the full video of Professor Schein’s talk on Culture Change Dilemmas in a Fast-Moving World and subscribe to receive email updates from The full presentation includes an explanation of his new lily pond analogy (image below), portraying the way in which the components of culture operate at different levels of depth and awareness, as briefly mentioned in his fourth point above.


Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of posts that will include video content from Human Synergistics’ 1st Annual Ultimate Culture Conference. The conference was a huge success and we extend our sincere thanks to the attendees and outstanding speakers—beginning with Professor Edgar Schein, author of this week’s blog post. Sign up to receive all of our posts on and view full video presentations from the conference.


1Schein, Edgar H. (2013). Humble inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

2Schein, Edgar H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership, 4th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

3Schein, Edgar H. (2009). The corporate culture survival guide, 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

About the Author

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Edgar Schein

Faculty Ed Schein received his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard in 1952, worked at the Walter Reed Institute of Research for four years and then joined MIT where he taught until 2005. He has published extensively in Organizational Psychology, 3d Ed. (1980), Process Consultation Revisited (1999), career dynamics (Career Anchors, 4th ed. With John Van Maanen, 2013), organizational culture texts (Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th Ed., 2010; The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 2d Ed., 2009), and analyses of Singapore’s economic miracle (Strategic Pragmatism, 1996), and Digital Equipment Corp.’s rise and fall (DEC is Dead; Long Live DEC, 2003). He continues to consult and recently has published a book on the general theory and practice of giving and receiving help (Helping, 2009) and a book on Inquiry (Humble Inquiry, 2013). He is the 2009 recipient of the Distinguished Scholar-Practitioner Award of the Academy of Management and the 2012 recipient of the Life Time Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association.