Westrum approach: a definitive guide to good organizational culture

As a business leader, you know that organizational culture plays a critical role in the success of your company. Culture is the set of values, behaviors, and beliefs that define how things are done within an organization. But what exactly is a “good” culture and how do you create one? According to research by DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA), one key aspect of a good culture is that it is high-trust and emphasizes information flow.

This idea is not new; it has been studied for decades by sociologist Dr. Ron Westrum. In his research on human factors in system safety, particularly in high-risk and complex fields such as aviation and healthcare, Westrum found that the way information flows through an organization greatly influences its culture and overall performance. He identified three characteristics of good information: it provides answers to the questions that the receiver needs to be answered, it is timely, and it is presented in such a way that the receiver can use it effectively.

Westrum also developed a typology of organizational cultures, including pathological, bureaucratic, and generative cultures.

Pathological Culture

A pathological culture is characterized by power orientation, low cooperation, messengers being “shot”, shirked responsibilities, discouraged bridging, failure leading to scapegoating, and crushed novelty.

Bureaucratic culture

Bureaucratic culture is characterized by rule orientation, modest cooperation, messengers neglected, narrow responsibilities, tolerated bridging, failure leading to justice, and novelty leading to problems.

Generative culture

A generative culture, on the other hand, is characterized by performance orientation, high cooperation, messengers trained, risks shared, bridging encouraged, failure leading to inquiry, and novelty implemented. A generative culture is most likely to foster information flow and lead to good outcomes.

DORA’s research and a large study at Google found that a high-trust, generative culture predicts software delivery and organizational performance in technology. The 2019 State of DevOps Report further analysis shows that a culture of psychological safety is predictive of software delivery performance, organizational performance, and productivity. In our teambuilding escape rooms at Reason, we also noticed that high-performing teams tend to carry a culture of trust and psychological safety, meaningful work, and clarity.

Sonar escape room SF

So, how do you create a generative culture?

  • High cooperation.
  • Messengers are trained.
  • Risks are shared.
  • Bridging is encouraged.
  • Failure leads to inquiry.
  • Novelty is implemented.

DORA research suggests that changing the way people work changes culture. This is echoed in the work of John Shook, who said “The way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behavewhat they do.”

Cross-functional teams work better

One practical way to do this is by creating cross-functional teams that include representatives from each functional area of the software delivery process, such as business analysts, developers, quality engineers, ops, security, and so on. This practice lets everyone share the responsibility for building, deploying and maintaining a product. It’s also important that there is good cooperation within the team.

Don’t kill the messenger

Teams can also train messengers to ensure that information is being shared effectively and in a timely manner.

Share the Risk with everyone

Risks should be shared among the team members, to ensure that everyone is aware of potential hazards and can work together to mitigate them.

Build bridges and cross-pollinate ideas

Encouraging bridging, or the sharing of ideas and knowledge across different departments and teams, can lead to innovation and more effective problem-solving.

Inquire but don’t blame when things fail

When failure occurs, teams should conduct an inquiry to understand the root cause of the problem, rather than blaming an individual or group.

Encourage experimentation

Finally, teams should implement novel ideas and be open to change, as this can lead to improved performance and innovation.

Conclusion

By focusing on these practices and behaviors, you can create a culture that fosters information flow and trust, leading to better software delivery and organizational performance. However, it’s important to remember that culture is not something you can change overnight. Creating a good culture takes time, effort, and consistent actions. It’s important to communicate the changes you want