How to understand culture

Discover which assumptions drive.


This tutorial yields a list of assumptions that describe how your team views the world.

You can use this list as a starting point to identify opportunities for change. It also helps you screen for people who might fit well into your team. Finally, theses assumptions hold clues as to where your culture has blind spots.


Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as water lilies in a pond.

Values & norms: A sign next to the pond proclaiming the characteristics of the water lilies in the pond. Articulated interpretations of what led to the creation of the artifacts. Usually, these are words and labels.

Artifacts: The blossoms and flower petals of the water lilies. Observable behaviors and their output. Basically, everything you see of an organization. E.g. its colors, its texts, its products and its policies.

Assumptions: The roots of the water lilies hidden in the pond's silt. Perspectives on the world, how it works, what is good, and what is right. Usually, these assumptions are hidden in our unconscious.


This model of organizational culture has a profound impact on the approach to changing culture.

Culture changes only from its roots, not from new signs at the pond. In other words, to influence culture there are two options:

  • Replace the people with others and their perspectives on the world. This is why startups invest so heavily in finding the right employees.
  • Restructure the context that creates perspectives on the world. This context are the structures for reward and punishment in the organization with bonuses, benefits and promotions at its center.

Really the only feasible option for established organizations is to create new incentives. In other words, any attempt at establishing new behaviors (artifacts) will fail, if the structures don't incentivize that behavior or actively prohibit it.

Fortunately, organizations have the potential to change structures. And a list of assumptions helps you identify promising starting points for this.


Here are some examples to better understand culture.

We'll focus on artifacts and assumptions, not so much on values.


  • A red glass whiteboard in a cold hallway with printed A4 innovation idea briefs.
  • A dishwasher on which dirty cups and glasses pile up.
  • Black and white posters with scenery and motivational slogans on the wall.
  • A huge whiteboard with scribbles on and a box of cables and it hardware next to it.
  • Really comfortable leather chairs on both sides of a massive wooden table.
  • A fridge stacked with beverage crates from hipster brands and a fresh fruit basket.
  • Macbook Pros everywhere with stickers and badges on their back.
  • Black Lenovo Thinkpads with boot lock, linux, and id-cards.


  • Only the very best is good enough.
  • Work happens at your desk in silence.
  • Failure is not an option.
  • Everything is an engineering problem.
  • Trust, but verify.
  • Every day is a new opportunity to serve.
  • Growth requires exploration and failure.
  • Empathy trumps logic.

Brainstorm which assumptions might lead to these artifacts or vice versa which artifacts might come out of the above assumptions. Try not to judge too quickly and explore multiple alternatives for each ;)

Understand culture through self-review

This is a reflective approach based on the analytical description of the artifacts.

This approach to understanding culture is primarily suited for an insiders perspective on culture.

Step 1: Collect artifacts

Make a list of all the artifacts you can think of.

Try to be as specific in your description as possible, like the list above. You can also turn that list into a collage of photos and screenshots.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What do you spent money on?
  • What vocabulary do you use?
  • Which technologies are in use?
  • How are facilities named?
  • How is time allocated?
  • Which stories are told regularly?
  • What unwritten rules and expectations exist?
  • What rituals and rites of passage are celebrated?

Don't stop until you've collected at least 20 artifacts (behaviors or their output).

Step 2: Review artifacts

Here begins the tricky part... after all, most of your assumptions are unconscious.

If you're doing this in a group, we recommend that everybody writes down their own notes in their own time. Once everybody is finished, you can share your impressions and findings.

While we're terrible at examining our own assumptions, we're equally great at association and empathy. Remember that there is no right or wrong here, just your interpretation.

1) Associate

Looking at your collage or reading through your list of vivid descriptions, certain adjectives will pop up in your mind. You might not like them particularly. Write them down any way and see where this collection leads you. For each of your artifacts you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • What does this remind me of?
  • Where have I seen something similar?
  • What specifically do I like or dislike about that artifact?

2) Empathize

For this second part you need to awaken you inner ethnographer. Yes, there is one in each of us ;)

Imagine you are given the list or collage of artifacts from a fellow ethnographer. She's studied a foreign culture for several weeks and this is the result.

For every artifact, put yourself into the shoes of a person creating it.

  • What considerations go into its creation?
  • What are you thinking when you walk through the behaviors?
  • Where to you see traces of special emphasis?
  • Why would somebody make this precisely this way?
  • What pieces of the context contribute or inhibit to the creation of theses artifacts?

You should now have many different interpretations and statements that could have gone into the making of the artifacts.

Step 3: Summarize patterns

Take a short break of at least 15 minutes.

Seriously, even if you're doing this by yourself, pause. Stand up to open the window or go for a quick walk.

Having taken a step back, gather all your notes and make clusters of similar statements.

A few words and phrases will have come up repeatedly. In addition to the frequencies, listen to your heart. You will feel tensions for statements that ring true to your assumptions.

Circle all that feel relevant. These are the assumptions that drive your culture.

Here are two examples from Edgar Schein:


  • Rugged individualism
  • Entrepreneurial spirit
  • Truth through conflict
  • Push back and get buy-in
  • Technical innovation
  • Work is fun
  • Do the right thing
  • He who proposes, does
  • Individual responsibility
  • Paternalistic family
  • Job security


  • Scientific research is the source of truth and good ideas.
  • The mission is to make a better world through science and "important" products.
  • Truth and wisdom reside in those who have more education and experience.
  • The strength of the organization is in the expertness of each role occupant. A job is one's own turf.
  • We are one family and take care of each other, but a family is a hierarchy and children have to obey.
  • There is enough time. Quality, accuracy, and truth are more important than speed.
  • Individual and organizational autonomy are the keys to success so long as one stays closely linked to one's "parents".


Take a look at how sensemaking creates culture through interpretations of the context.

Think about how the time you spend working with the same colleagues could lead to different clouds of meaning in your organization. Are there specific echo chambers or filter bubbles present that might influence the way you make sense?

Share How to understand culture with the world: