A Leader’s Guide to Culture-Shaping: Minding the Gap

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A Leader’s Guide to Culture-Shaping: Minding the Gap

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This is a follow-up article to my Culture-Shaping post for Leaders. You can find Part-1 here, Part-2 here, and Part-3 here

I really like the work Frederic Laloux has contributed around organizational cultures. It provides a series of phases (colors) that reflect the cultural evolutionary paths of corporations (organizations).

Unfortunately, there are a couple of negative things that have evolved around it.

One is the relentless pursuit of “Teal” as a goal in the agile transformation community. I liken it to the enthusiasm around DevOps, Spotify, or SAFe in the pursuit of silver bullet solutions or bandwagons.

Another is the realization that Teal isn’t really a good goal, not is it that well-understood or well-references of a model. As alluded to in this article by Corporate-Rebels.

But the reason I wanted to explore it now is to illustrate a cultural phenomenon I’ve often seen in agile transformational contexts. And the Laloux model works nicely as a communications device to explain cultural divisions, which is where we’re going next.

One of the things that I think is most useful about the model is how it can represent various stages in an organization. Let me share a story to make that point.

I was working with a client a few years ago. They are an insurance provider with a long history in that industry. They have been and are incredibly successful.

From a company and leadership culture perspective, they are solidly Amber-Orange. That is, they are a traditional hierarchical, command-and-control company. The leaders lead and the followers follow. A big part of their culture is the notion of governance and controls. They have them mostly from a regulatory perspective, but they’ve seeped into the culture beyond those things actually required by the regulators.

Over the past five or ten years, the company has been trying to modernize the way they bring products to their customers. They’ve lost market share, they’ve been growing thru acquisition, and they’ve realized that they need to digitally transform. Thus, they’ve been involved in an agile transformation for a number of years.

I visited them to perform an agility assessment to see where things were operating currently and to suggest some improvement steps.

From a Culture-Shaping perspective, what I found were two opposing cultural stances—

(1) Leadership Culture

While they were talking about agile, digital transformation, innovation, and empowerment, the leaders were still largely operating at an Amber-Orange level. Point being, nothing much had changed at this level culturally. And that’s ok.

(2) Team Culture

Based on the direction the leadership team was setting, the teams were moving or shifting culturally. Historically, they had mirrored the leaders Amber-Orange level. But with their agile transformation unfolding, they were now at an Orange-Green level. And even more importantly, they were accelerating more towards Green cultural behaviors.

Then there was…The Gap

As I assessed the company’s cultural landscape, it became clear that there was an increasing cultural gap or divide developing. And it wasn’t by accident, but instead was totally intentional. However, the gap was largely invisible to everyone. It was just “happening”.

In my assessment results review, I used the Laloux model as a way of communicating the competing cultural dynamics and the gap that was created and widening. It turned out to be a perfect communications vehicle. And I shied away from speaking in binary terms, such as you’re Orange, or you need to be Greener. Instead, it just served as a model for the cultural landscape.

As I said, leaders were Amber-Orange and the teams were Orange-Green. This evolution was creating increasing tension, frustration, and decreased morale in the teams. Mostly because they were disconnected from the base leadership culture.

One of my assessment recommendations revolved around this. And I honestly told the leaders that I didn’t care which direction they chose. But they had to choose a unified direction to achieve better alignment and healther tension. Their options were—

  1. Either the leaders aggressively began an effort to align towards their teams. That is moving from Amber-Orange to more of an Orange-Green culture, which would align with their teams, OR

  2. Change the agile transformation direction of the teams, slowing them down or shifting them left, so that they reverted to Amber-Orange to better align with the leadership culture.

But the option of doing nothing and allowing the gap to continue increasing was not a healthy one. That it would eventually tear them apart culturally.

As a leader focused on Culture-Shaping, I want you to seriously consider the different layers of culture within your organization. 

I typically view, observe, and assess culture at three levels—

  1. Senior Leadership (C-level, VP)

  2. Management (Director, Line-Manager, PMO, Project Management, Regulatory)

  3. Teams (Execution Teams, Internal vs. External Teams, Supporting Teams)

And the assessment doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed or academic. Instead, share the Laloux model with a small, representative group from each of the three levels. Ask them to self-identify what layer/color they see as most representative of the current culture. And be open to a cross-color mapping as in my example.

Then look for alignment or gaps.

As a leader and Culture-Shaper in your organization, you’ll want to close those gaps. Slowly, steadily, doggedly, and with micro-steps. And, of course, with directional-leanage towards Green.

Stay agile my friends,


#LeadersSetCulture, #LeadersShapeCulture, #CultureShaping

BTW: there will be a 5’th article in this series where we’ll explore the notion of Showing Up as an energizer for your Culture-Shaping efforts.

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