Strategic 360s

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Culture is Like a Song

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When defining organizational culture, I have picked up on the definition used by Bossidy and Charan in their book, “Execution” (2009) that it is defined by the behaviors that leaders exhibit and tolerate (and encourage, I would add). They assert that,

…to change the culture of the company, it must be done by changing the behaviors of its leaders” (Bossidy and Charan 2009, p. 105).

I am drawn to this definition because it is behavioral, and, therefore, can be observed, measured, developed and changed. This may feel somewhat “cold” to many of you who envision culture to be something more ethereal.  I offer this alternate definition as an example:

The values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. Organizational culture includes an organization’s expectationsexperiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world, and future expectations. It is based on shared attitudesbeliefscustoms, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid.  (

I am sometimes critical of definitions like this because a) they make the construct/concept sound much too complicated for our end users (clients, organizations) and b) it is probably impossible to reliably measure despite the desperate attempt at the very end to assert they must be valid (or at least “considered” valid. Really?)

I was recently sharing my definition of culture in a talk I gave at SPIM (, and it occurred to me that the pure behaviorist definition does seem cold.  I told them (and now you) that I really don’t believe that culture is just a bunch of behaviors any more than three notes are just a “chord” in music. So I got to thinking about this musical metaphor.

I am not anywhere near a musical expert nor prodigy. But I do love music of all kinds, play a couple instruments, and have performed in many groups, from folk groups, rock bands, orchestras, marching bands. and church choirs. Have even tried to write a few ditties along the way.  So I do appreciate the magic of music done well and the challenge of creating that magic.

Most of you are younger than me, but some of the “old” music is still pretty accessible. With the use of the song “America” in the Sanders campaign, you had the chance to get introduced (or re-familiarized) with the duet harmony of Simon and Garfunkel, and that is one kind of magic augmented by a message that strikes home on many levels that can give you goose bumps.

But adding a third note is a different kind of experience.  It’s kind of like the difference between two points creating a line in two dimensions, and then adding that third point that creates a plane. It is that concept that we also use in defining psychological constructs, and (at least from my recollection of factor analysis) part of the reason that, in 360 data collection and reporting, we try to have three items in a dimension and three responses to report a score.

Back to music, the recent death of George Martin has created an excuse to revisit the catalog of The Beatles songs that he produced and even performed on. In fact, just yesterday the New York Times created a list of almost their entire library in which you can listen to snippets or listen to the full song on Spotify with just a click.

I encourage you to use that easy NYTimes means to refresh (or create) a memory of the magic that they could create with the three part harmonies on songs like “This Boy,” “Nowhere Man,” and “I Feel Fine.”  “Because” from “Abbey Road” is also amazing, but with an asterisk since it might be called “synthetic” harmony in 9 parts, obviously using technology to create the multiple layers of voices.

For those of you who know more about music than I do, I have heard of references to “phantom” (or hidden) notes that are not sung but are heard when harmonies are just right.  I keep using the word “magic” but I can’t think of a better way of describing the sense you get when the sound is so rich, and then even sometimes combined with a moving lyric.  I am not the most spiritual person in the world, but some of my most vivid, chill-producing experiences have been when singing in a church choir when the music, the message, and the performance all come together, maybe for even just a phrase or even one bar. I think most of us have used the metaphor of “singing out of the same hymnal” regardless of our denomination (or lack thereof) and know basically what we are referring to when we use it.

The Beatles (and George Martin, sometimes called the “Fifth Beatle”) were an organization. I think their culture was best demonstrated when they sang in three parts (occasionally Ringo joined), and they did less of that on “Sgt. Pepper’s”, and then it basically went away until their last album, “Abbey Road.” (“Let It Be” was recorded before Abbey Road and had no three-part harmony that I can cite).  I propose that they lost their “culture” in a corresponding timeframe, and got it back to an extent in time to produce their arguably best (and last) album.

So this behaviorist does see/hear/feel the magic that can be created by three or more leaders in an organization that are “singing” the same tune that is derived from a common commitment to the organization’s vision, values and strategy, translated into concrete behavioral requirements that are definable, measurable, and developable. We sometimes refer to that as the whole being more than the sum of the parts; the sentiment is the same but that phrase doesn’t create chills, at least for me.

Can a behaviorist see and hear magic, and get chills? This one can.


Bossidy, L. and Charan, R. (2009). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York: Crown Business.


Written by David Bracken

March 16, 2016 at 11:08 pm

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