Westrum World


Back in May I read ‘Accelerate’ — I’m a big fan and have encouraged a number of colleagues, friends and passers by to check it out. It is significantly influencing my thinking on our ‘lean software’ practice at Notbinary and how we can best provide the kind of service that genuinely supports ‘transformation’.

The recent publication of the 2018 ‘State of DevOps’ report (well worth a read if you don’t want to immediately spring for the book) reminded me that I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the ‘Westrum’ model mentioned in the book.

Professor Westrum introduced his ‘Three Cultures Model’ in a paper published in the BMJs Quality and Safety journal back in 2004 (you can read the full open access version of the paper). As you would expect given the publication this paper was concerned with the organisational cultures of health institutions but the model was soon identified as being applicable for all kinds of organisations — especially those that need to deal with rapid technological change and expert staff.

The ‘Three Cultures’ he identified are;

Pathological organisations are characterized by large amounts of fear and threat. People often hoard information or withhold it for political reasons, or distort it to make themselves look better.

Bureaucratic organisations protect departments. Those in the department want to maintain their “turf,” insist on their own rules, and generally do things by the book — their book.

Generative organisations focus on the mission. How do we accomplish our goal? Everything is subordinated to good performance, to doing what we are supposed to do.

The Accelerate book is clear that truly high performing organisations are already displaying a ‘generative’ culture. This allows ‘devops’ approaches to flourish and provide all the advantages included in those ways of working.

While I’m lucky enough to have mainly avoided working in ‘pathological’ organisations it is safe to say the majority of my career has been firmly spent in places that embody the ‘bureaucratic’ culture.

What I have come to realise though is that in keeping with my current ‘one team at a time’ philosophy my goal is almost always to create an environment where a team can operate with a ‘generative’ culture (as far as possible) within a wider ‘bureaucratic’ culture. This requires a leadership style that leans heavily on the ‘shit umbrella’ concept — protecting the team from outside distractions while providing them all the information they need about the goals and ambitions of the organisation. It also requires a genuine servant/leadership approach and an almost uncomfortable level of trust in your team. None of these things are easy nor happen over night so I am spending a bit of time at the moment wondering how to better achieve these goals when my current role necessitates shorter engagements and a requirement to deliver change more quickly.

I often talk about the idea that getting teams to embrace these modern ways of working (going full ‘generative’) can act like a virus infecting more bureaucratic organisations — unfortunately often the desire to jump in and ‘scale’ can end up acting like antibiotics — reinforcing process over performance and hobbling the generative culture so it fits in with the bureaucratic mothership. So this is another thing I need to better understand — how can this ‘grassroots’ model of change be made more resistant to the cells fighting back.

Do other people recognise these ‘cultures’ in public service organisations? Is there more ‘pathological’ culture out there than I realise? Is your team able to operate in a more ‘generative’ way or does the local approach prevent this?

What say you?