Westrum's Cultures Of Requisite Imagination

In order to keep with my recent resolution to write more about the things I learn in order to make them stick, so I’m going to summarise Ron Westrum’s 1993 paper, Cultures with Requisite Imagination. This is a short 16 pager that I advise you to read, as it goes into depth and examples I won’t go into here. Readers that have read the excellent Accelerate from Forsgren, Kim and Humble will find this paper to be the origin of the cultural archetypes they list, and a significant part of their analysis.

The central question asked in this paper is what makes some organisations good at rooting out and fixing serious issues in new projects, and what makes others hide and sweep them under the rug? He coins the capacity to identify, fix and adjust course in response to these problems effectiveness.

What then differentiates effective organisations from ineffective organisations? Westrum argues that the crucial element at the core of it all is conscious inquiry. By this he means the cultural practice of what is broadly known as “asking questions”. Noticing problems, and then asking colleagues about it, and having their concerns about these problems listened to by high-level stakeholders. The encouragement to “notice problems” is the key.

Based on how accepting the organisation is of this noticing and asking questions, the archetypes appear. In a pathological organisation, where noticing is not accepted, all the the terrible habits of the “bad corporate world” stereotype begin to happen. Information is treated as currency, and sharing it weakens that. People who notice problems are considered troublemakers and punished accordingly. Responisbilities are shirked because they are liabilities. New ideas are actively crushed, as they could shift the power balance. Failure is punished and covered up to preserve appearances.

In organisations where inquiry is tolerated, bureaucracy tends to emerge. When people notice problems, their concerns are listened to, because the organisation relies on things working properly. New ideas however, present problems, as they are not accounted for in existing practices. Responsibilities are compartmentalised between departments, as each “keeps to their own”. Bridging between departments is allowed but neglected, as responsibilities are kept separate. In general there’s a belief that the organisation is just and merciful, so failure is accepted.

On the upper end, in generative organisational culture, where inquiry is promoted and accepted, the members of the organisation actively seek out information that could point to problems. After all, they are most invested in having things work. People who notice problems are trained in how to be better at noticing, so more information can be sought and found. New ideas on how to improve the system are welcomed, as that goes hand-in-hand with seeking new inforamtion. Bridging between departments is rewarded, as responsibility is shared and more knowledge in the room brings new insight. Failure is merely an additional data point, it should be investigated and efforts redirected.

The central point all of this points to is functional information flow as the secret ingredient in creating generative organisational culture. Most serious incidents have lead signals, the kind that make experienced practioners go “Hmm, that’s weird”. In organisations where information flow is dysfunctional, that is never listened to or acted upon until it’s too late. The more willing team members are to ask questions, voice their hunches, and “look dumb”, the better these leading symptoms can be acted upon, and the better the end result will be.

Then how can we encourage better information flow? Westrum lists a few ways in the paper:

A last point brought up for improving information flow: What Westrum dubs Maestros. Maestros are top-level project leadership that are deeply involved in how the project is going. Spending their time in the trenches, as it were, and pushing for the open information flow, rewarding honesty, and using their power over the project to make sure that a culture of openness flourishes. Conversely, without a maestro, and without engaged leadership, squabbles can set the tone for the project and ruin the information flow so crucial to the success of the project. The culture of openness is of paramount importance to the actual success of the project underneath.

In summary, this is an excellent paper with many foundational ideas that have come up several times in various forms since. Just knowing about how organisational culture interacts with information flow is important. It’s also a very useful paper to have in your back pocket for citations and quotes, as desigining information flow into a project or an organisation is much easier at the start than in the middle.