Andy Kelk


Using the Westrum typology to measure culture

Having a culture of collaboration where people feel safe to share their views and work across a diverse group is a must for a successful organisation. Every year, the State of DevOps report includes the results of a survey which shows the impact that culture has on the organisation.

Statistical analysis of the results showed that team culture was not only strongly correlated with organizational performance, it was also a strong predictor of job satisfaction. The results are clear: a high-trust, generative culture is not only important for creating a safe working environment—it is the foundation of creating a high-performance organization
Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale; Humble, Molesky, O’Reilly

The methodology used for the State of DevOps report can also be used within your own organisation and used as a pulse check to see if there’s aspects of the culture that need work or areas that need focus.

The survey is based on a model of organisational cultures created by Ron Westrum. The model places organisations on a scale ranging from Pathological (power-oriented) to Generative (performance-oriented).

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 Study of Information Flow: A Personal Journey; Westrum

The different organisational cultures have varied attributes along six axes:

Pathological

Power-oriented

Bureaucratic

Rule-oriented

Generative

Performance-oriented

Low co-operation Modest co-operation High co-operation
Messengers shot Messengers neglected Messengers trained
Responsibilities shirked Narrow responsibilities Risks are shared
Bridging discouraged Bridging tolerated Bridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoating Failure leads to justice Failure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushed Novelty leads to problems Novelty implemented

To test your organisation, you can run a very simple survey asking the group to rate how well they identify with 6 statements:

  • On my team, information is actively sought.
  • On my team, failures are learning opportunities, and messengers of them are not punished.
  • On my team, responsibilities are shared.
  • On my team, cross-functional collaboration is encouraged and rewarded.
  • On my team, failure causes enquiry.
  • On my team, new ideas are welcomed.

The respondents rate each statement from a 1 (strongly disagree) to a 7 (strongly agree). By collecting aggregating the results, you can see where your organisation may be falling short and put actions in place to address those areas. These questions come from peer-reviewed research by Nicole Forsgren.

We run these surveys quarterly and they give us a high-level overview of whether we’re getting better at creating the right culture and the areas that are lagging and need conscious effort to improve.


3 thoughts on “Using the Westrum typology to measure culture

  1. Hi,

    do you know who came up with these 6 statements (“On my team, …”)? Was it Puppet Labs? I cannot find them in the original Westrum papers.

    The DevOps Enterprise Forum report () even calls them “Westrum items. Note these items have been shown to be highly valid and
    reliable statistically.”. I still have not found any sources which show that validation. Hudson et al. 2004 used other constructs and several others basing questionnaires on Westrum have chosen much more safety-related questions.

    Thanks!



    • Nichole – which peer reviewed paper?

      I have read “DevOps: Profiles in ITSM Performance and Contributing Factors.” and “The Role of Continuous Delivery in IT and Organizational Performance.” neither contained the model? The “DORA Platform” isn’t available from reachgate (I’ve requested access).

      Thanks!


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