Feb 11, 2019
| 2 min read

Podcast #18

Cracking the Myths and Misperceptions of Culture - An Interview With David White


David White is a principal at Ontos Global, a boutique consulting firm based in Berkeley, CA and the author of Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations. Our conversation explored his deep background into organizational culture, the evolution of cognitive anthropology and some of the misperception around culture  - what it is, why it’s important, and why it’s so difficult for organizations to change. White discussed insights from the past thirty years of research into the brain, illuminating how organizational culture is shaped by the industry and the daily tasks of the people within. Our conversation explores the role of language, leadership and technology, challenges and new approaches for organizations to transform their culture to become more effective. 


Book Recommendation:

Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations (Routledge Studies in Organizational Change & Development) by David White

Cognition in the Wild by Ed Hutchins

Culture as a System: How We Know the Meaning and Significance of What We Do and Say by David Kronenfeld

Ontos Global – Resources


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Welcome everybody to the Momenta Edge Podcast. This is Ed Maguire Insights partner at Momenta, and today we have a special guest, David White, who is the principal of Ontos Global, and a cognitive anthropologist. Ontos is a boutique consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay area. Dave is also the author of Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations.  

There’s an interesting back story to this; David and I knew each other way-way back when, in the New York area, where we both happened to be jazz musicians, and through the miracles of social media Dave reconnected with me just recently and shared a tape of some of the music we’d played together. Dave is a fabulously accomplished jazz guitarist and composer who has a number of CDs to his credit, he’s played in a Grammy-nominated band amongst other things. We’re not going to talk about that in this podcast, but it was really a wonderful way to reconnect. 

David it’s great to have you on the podcast. 

Thanks for having me Ed, it’s great to reconnect and relive some of those crazy moments from New York City. 


Yes, it was. The recording you shared was on a hot summer day where we all got together, and essentially just improvised without any pre-conceived material. It has a lot of parallels with what we end up doing in our daily lives in many ways. 

In more ways than one. We should also point out for your audience Ed, you are also a very fabulously accomplished multi-instrumentalist. That day you were playing bass, and it was a great memory. 


Yes, it was, and in the interim I think both of us have taken some different career paths which has led us up to doing work in some very common areas, we have some common companies that we work with, and I thought it was fascinating. Having you joined the podcast I think will add some human dimension to a lot of the topics that we’ve been covering in some of the prior podcasts, which have focused a lot on technology disruption and some of the impact on organizations, but I think what’s really fascinating is some of the work that you’ve done since we initially met as musicians. 

David, share a bit of your background, what got you into the study of organizations, and ultimately led you to cognitive anthropology. 

Like for many of us, it’s a long and winding road, it’s a sequiturs route. I would never have predicted that day that when we were playing in New York City in the 1980s, that we would be having this conversation 30 years later. 

My journey, I have maintained a career in jazz as you mentioned, but early-on decided rather than being a bar tender or a waiter in a restaurant for the rest of my life to support myself, because of course there is no money in jazz whatsoever. Through a series of events over many years found myself getting into and interested in HR, Human Resources, and started out my career as an executive recruiter on Wall Street, that led to eventually moving inhouse and doing HR for an investment banking technology start-up, which then led me eventually to Lotus Development, the original inventor of the spreadsheet, up in the Boston area, which led me eventually to IBM because Lotus was acquired by IBM, and many years later started my own technology company in the HR space, that was acquired by a large consulting firm, and then I wind up at Microsoft where I spent a number of years doing HR organisational development, culture change, large scale change essentially. 

So, it’s been an evolution with the common thread of trying to figure out why organizations do what they do internally, and why some of the best laid strategies in the best writer’s minds inevitably don’t always achieve what they intend, because of these impinging internal organisational factors, like culture, people, the system dynamics, human dynamics of people in organizations. So, since early 1990s I’ve been fascinated by those questions. 


You pursued a PhD in cognitive anthropology.  

Well much later, after 20+ years of working in this space, I was always interested in the more formal intellectual questions and literature on this topic, but finally decided to pursue a PhD in the late 1990s-early 2000s, and got a cognitive anthropology, which is the study of the relationship between the brain and culture. Cognitive anthropology is a relatively new discipline, it’s a sub-discipline of the mix of psychology and anthropology with an emphasis on the brain, there’s been an explosion in research, literatures, and researchers in this field in the last 30 years, it’s a very young field. 


How did you make the evolution from working inside organizations, to taking this deeper dive into the cognitive aspect of anthropology? Were there some experiences that had helped shape your views, or point you in a direction to dive deeper? 

I would say it’s not really any one specific experience, just accumulative effect of being inside organizations and seeing how they work and don’t work. I think probably the most formative of those kinds of experiences was my Microsoft experience, I was almost 10-years at Microsoft. Microsoft has a very palpable culture, and yet everybody can recognize and describe in some ways, yet it was very difficult to measure that culture or quantify it in any way, or make sense of it in any empirical way, yet it was something that you and I could agree on. I’ve never been inside an organization that had such a strong way of doing things, and when you are in that system you clearly could see people who ‘fit’, and those who didn’t fit, and you could evidence that in the rates at which senior executives would be hired, and then leave the company fairly quickly because they couldn’t ‘fit’ in. 

I had been fascinated by the culture of questioned long before I joined Microsoft, which was in the early 2000s, but when I got to Microsoft a lot of these ideas about culture came to the fore, because of the experience I was having. I’d never been inside an organization where this nebulous thing called culture was so palpable, that got me really interested in how to deal with it, how to understand it, how to measure it. Also, I should point out, we were doing a lot of work in culture change, trying to ‘change’ the Microsoft culture, for a lot of reasons which we can get into, and most of those approaches to my mind were quite inadequate, woefully inadequate, I have to say I was part of that change effort, but I was also deeply skeptical that what we were doing was going to move the needle in any way. 

So, the combination of being in a system where the culture was so strong, and also realizing that the culture change mechanisms that we were employing were naïve, just behind the times in my view, got me interested in going deeper and pursing an academic-intellectual understanding of this question. 


I know you’ve written quite a bit on this, and there’s quite a fascinating paper on your website called ‘Disrupting Culture’, which we will link to in the show notes. One of the points you make is, culture is a term that’s probably one of the most over-used and least understood in society, and as that ties back to organizations, you cited a study that showed 76 percent of firms in a survey had planned some sort of culture change. I think it’s worthwhile stepping back a bit, and define what culture is; how do you look at culture and what do you think some of the misperceptions are around the definition of culture, as it applies to an organization? 

It’s remarkable, the culture field is littered with carcasses of failed innovations, and yet it persists as one of the most popular… every executive that I know of on the planet talks about their culture. There’s a lot of reasons for that, one reason is that the science of culture is still relatively young, despite the fact that Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict in the 1920s were writing about primitive society cultures in the study of Samoa, and other so-called primitive societies. Most of the exciting ground-breaking work on culture has happened over the last 30-years, as I mentioned, because of the cognitive sciences. 

What has happened, or what has shifted is that much of the business world treats culture as a dependent variable, something you can manipulate like any other asset. Whilst that’s an understandable position to take, because most executives are not concerned about culture, they just see culture as a means to an end, they’re trying to achieve better financial performance, or achieve some sort of organizational transformation for good business reasons, and culture is just another variable in the mix of variable that you can manipulate. Some of that thinking is traceable back to the very-very early days of anthropology, where cultures were thought of as simplistic entities with well-definable boundaries, and you could say this culture, or that culture, easily point out discernible cultures in so-called primitive societies. 

Some of it however also has to do with the fact that a lot of the study of culture in organizations, and the study of culture in Business Schools comes from economists, or management scientists who have been separate from the research traditions in cultural anthropology, psychological anthropology, and cognitive anthropology. So, there’s a gap between what the Business Schools talk about, when they talk about culture, and what the anthropologists, the linguists, and the neuroscientists and the other folks talk about in the academic world, separate from the business world is really a divide. 

So, the combination of business pragmatism, out-moded theories of culture that have been leveraged, that are over 100-years old; and the fact that the people who do organizational research aren’t really talking to the people who do social-science research in the broader sense, has contributed to this gap in understanding. 


I think what seems to be a challenge, and what has certainly come up in our conversations is that the ability to change behaviors in organizations once you go past the famous Dunbar’s number of 150 people, gets much greater. Historically have the studies of organizational culture been driven just as a means to scale a business, and create replica behavior? How have people thought about culture in the past, and are there some new elements to the analysis in the interim or since then, become much more important in determining how to drive change? 

In my view, the culture practice in organizations have really been the Wild-Wild West kind of approach. Culture is operationalized in many, many ways, in all fairness there have been over 150 definitions of culture over the last 50 years in anthropology, so it is a very slippery topic, and that is part of the problem. But again, the relentless pragmatism of business has contributed to this by taking on very simplistic one-dimensional answers, approaches, or solutions to culture. You have to understand, the whole interest in culture is relatively new in organizations, it came out of the 1970s where the shift… and this has to do with theory X, theory Y ideas, where the shift in the 70s was from thinking of people in organizations and motivation as essentially about people are inherently uninterested, lazy, unmotivated to do their work, and therefore the way to manage people is through coercive means; direct control, coercion.  

The research in the 1970s moved that discussion to thinking about organizations much more as normative environments, where the best way to manage and motivate people is to harness their energy, their motivation, and their interest in the work or the organisational wellbeing itself, and harness that for good use. So, the executive emphasis shifted from more direct means of control, or control of the workforce, or control of the workers, to normative means. So, the organizational culture interest in business comes out of this normative shift in the 1970s, where suddenly it’s not fashionable to be directly commanding and controlling your organization, but its more fashionable to be thinking of indirect means such as rewards, such as recognition, such as better understanding of what motivates people. The emphasis on diversity stems out of this, the emphasis on teams stems out of this. 

So, culture is just another aspect of this, the ideas is that if we could create the environment where people could do their best work, that would be a much better way to go than simply telling people what to do and controlling people in a directly manipulative way. 


One of the points you made in your writing was, creating change in an organization is very much dependent on what the organization does; if you’re a software company, or you’re trying to go through a business transformation from selling wages to selling software, there’s a fundamental foundational change at work that has a direct outsize impact on the ability of a company that change how people are doing things. Talk about some of the misalignments, how companies may look at a transformation such as moving from selling products to selling services, or trying to apply a methodology from the private sector to a non-profit organization; how do those misalignments or misperceptions end up creating problems for organizations, that you’ve seen? 

Good question. Let’s back-up, to answer that question you need to understand what I was saying earlier about the cognitive revolution in the social sciences, and particularly in anthropology. So, the new working cognitive in the cognitive science, which is linguistic psychology, cultural neuroscience, anthropology, etc., really has established that the brain is essentially plastic. What that means is, the brain is deeply influenced by its experience, and that’s not just to say we learn from experience, its way more than that. The brain is neurologically chemically shaped by the environments in which the organism finds itself, so think about that just for a second; the environment that surrounds you throughout your life in your childhood and as you grow up, patterns the way you think in a pretty fundamental way, which we’re just learning. 

The cultural take on that, or the cognitive anthropological take on that is then that as applied organizations, and this is the core thesis of my book, is that what you do shapes how you think. What does that mean, that means specifically that your professional orientation, your professional apprenticeships, the professionalization of your organization, meaning software engineers, lawyers, doctors, any kind of engineer, any deep professional training that the majority of your workforce has obtained will tend to shape the cognitive orientations of those people, those individuals, so, professionalization shapes how you think 

The other part of this thesis, also in my book, is that working under a meaningful task, solving very difficult problems over time, and successfully doing so in a sustained way, also shapes how you think. So, meaningful task attainment if you will, to put a technical term on it, and professionalization, are the two driving forces of how cultures come to be in organizations; which is shown and proven again and again in the literature, because we know that companies within industries are more culturally aligned, than companies across industries. We know that the nature of the work that companies do does shape the collected cognitive orientation, that’s why non-profits have a very distinct way of culturally speaking, feels quite different than for-profit companies, this is why government institutions or bureaucratic institutions feel quite different than for-profit companies. It’s the nature of the problem that they’re solving all day long indelibly shapes the collective thinking. 

That is one of the great findings of cognitive anthropology over the years, that the brain in its neuroplasticity is deeply shaped by the environment, taking that into organizations, what you do all day, the orientations that you bring to your work shapes how you think, and that includes technology, that includes the business models that you create for yourselves, the way you organize your processes, all of these tend to shape collective neuro pathways. Think about it that way, what is culture? Culture is shared knowledge, culture is a shared body of knowledge, the tricky part is, most of that knowledge is tacit or implicit, but we don’t know that we know it. There’s a thousand examples of this, everything from you know what to do when you walk into a restaurant,  you know what to expect, there’s a sequence, an ordering of events that happens, and when that sequence is disturbed in some way – or you walk into a restaurant on a beach in Tahiti that’s different than a restaurant in New York City, something is jarred in you, and what’s being jarred is the shared tacit knowledge, essentially the mental model that you have.  

So, culture is kind of shared mental models for how the world works, and the emphasis is on ‘shared’, and the emphasis is on ‘tacit’, because we typically don’t know that we know this knowledge, it resides in the background. The metaphor I use is, it’s really like an operating system, like a software operating system; when you’re running your computer, you’re not aware of the operating system that is powering your graphs, until something happens, until it breaks, crashes, you have to reload it, this is the metaphor that’s most applicable to culture. 


That’s got some interesting implications David. What you’ve described, it makes sense very-very simply when you explain it, it seems like that would be prima facie obvious, but it isn’t, because you could say, engineers think like engineers, artists think like artists, doctors think like doctors, but when you’re dealing with much more complex, dynamic roles across complex organizations, those personality or cognitive architypes don’t fit as neatly into strict classifications. So, from a standpoint of recruiting talent, that’s got to be an enormously powerful realization; but on the other hand if you’re trying to grow a business that is undergoing certain types of changes, or you’re trying to recruit the right people for a task, what are some of the considerations if you’re an organization looking at talent and looking at recruiting, how do you bridge potential gaps in alignment between a talent, a candidate, or employee, and some of the skillsets, or ways of thinking that you really want to encourage? 

That’s a complex question, because one of the traps organizations fall into is thinking of culture as essentially causal, like the culture shapes the behaviour. It’s one of the four big traps or myths that organizations traffic in. The tricky part is again, like an operating system or what cognitive anthropologist call a reference system, culture resides in the background, and at any given point in time you might be using that knowledge to act or behave in a certain way, but at any point in time you are eligible also to bring in a different cultural model as we call them, a different reference system to shape your behavior.  

So, to your question, with the implication on recruiting, it obviously has a strong insinuation that diversity matters a lot in shaping collective thinking, it’s one of the reasons why diverse teams, diverse in every sense of the word, over the short-term tend to under-perform homogeneous teams. But the more heterogeneous the team or the talent pool is, over time with proper attention to these phenomena tend to outperform homogeneous teams. The reason for that is, homogenous teams, whether its professionally homogenous, or gender, race, ethnicity, geography etc., will tend to absorb or take in the resident cultural models, the resident reference system, without question. Whereas a so-called outsider in any given system will tend to become more readily aware of that reference system, and call it out, and therefore make it available for change. 

So, in other words, the less alike you are in a particular system, the more chance you have of shaping that cultural system in a different way. Let me just go on for a second and say, extend that thinking, this is why its extraordinarily difficult to change culture, and much more difficult than most organizations would have it. This is because it’s like the fish trying to change the water in its own fish tank, how do you do that? If culture is more the water you swim in, rather than some dependent variable, how do you go about changing culture? The cognitive anthropological view on this is, you can change culture, but the range of change is much more delimited, a non-profit is not going to turn into Google, a manufacturing company trying to embrace IoT is not going to become a software company overnight. The way they have to embrace IoT has to be much more dictated along the constraints of the manufacturing culture that is already resident there. 

So, change is possible but its delimited, and once your organization has embraced that, the opportunities ironically open up for them, and a lot of wasted energy, wasted resources on these big culture change programs probably would get rethought. 


That’s a fascinating insight and cuts to my interest here. I think your comment about diverse teams outperforming over the long term, I think most jazz musicians just implicitly understand that. That ultimately the more eyes that you have, and the more brains on a problem, looking at common goals from different points of view, there’s absolutely no doubt there. 

What are some of the tools? You brought up the example of a manufacturing company trying to introduce software capabilities, or software business models, that’s certainly one example that’s very close to the work we’re doing at Momenta; are there tools that companies can use once they become aware? And talk a bit about the role of language, are there ways you can change language to shape cultural change? 

Yeah, I’ll take the second one first. It’s an interesting question Ed, because language is one of the areas where there’s been a lot of new thinking, the historical view on language and culture is that languages and culture were synonymous, change the language you can change the culture, if we just get our executives to talk differently the culture will change. Most cognitive linguists and cognitive anthropologists today will debate that, and dispute that, the evidence for that is maybe outside the world of businesses, it’s very limited in that. The best way to think about this is most of our cultural knowledge is implicit as mentioned, and pre-verbal, think about our cultural knowledge being schematic, like a crude Etch-a-Sketch of knowledge, and the details get filled in depending on the context. 

We transact all our world and certainly our business world in language, so language can bring to light these schematic drawings, or schemas or mental models that reside in the background. But the language in and of itself is not capable of changing a culture, and this is a big pre-conception, or misconception in organizations. Language can help do a lot of things like establish a vision, set strategy, help us move in a particular direction that’s desirable for the organization, but in and of itself it’s not sufficient for changing culture; the key to culture change along the cognitive paradigm, and you as a jazz musician will know this very well, is practice. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice. 

What I mean by practice is, in the obvious sense of the word its repetition, its sustained effort over time, but it’s also with respect specifically to organizations is, the collection of formal and informal ways in which you run your business, and especially run the core of the business. When I say practice, I mean the way you think about and allocate risk in your organization, think about the manufacturer again, trying to implement IoT; at the core of the manufacturing task environment is risk mitigation, the cost of failure in manufacturing is very high. So, what manufacturer is going to release a product to market in a six-week sprint with bugs? I don’t know any manufacturer that will do that. So, at the core of the manufacturing task environment is a strong mitigation of risk as it should be.  

The software world has a very different orientation to risk as we know, Sprints, Agile, Hackathons, these are all ways of iterating and failing fast, and releasing product to market all the time with known bugs. So, it’s a very different mental model and different mindset. To successfully bring in a different way of thinking about software for example, or analytics, or data, into a manufacturing company, would be to fundamentally reorient the practice of risk, or the practice of managing risk; how do you do that?  

  • How do you change your risk management, or risk mitigation practices?  
  • How do you change your budgeting practices? 
  • How do you change your definitions of success with the practices that surround how companies define what good is? 

In the software world, failure is good. Not succeeding, or failing fast is a value, it’s a virtue in organizations, so how do you incorporate failure-oriented practices where failure becomes okay, into an industrial manufacturing organization? So, the key is practice, much more than language, much more than executive pronouncements is, how do you change your practices? The emphasis is on both the informal and the formal, because the practices will over time change the brain chemistry, in the same way that practicing guitar for 10,000 hours changes the way your brain is wired, practicing the bass for 10,000 hours, that 10,000 hours is a magic threshold. 

That is very difficult for organizations to do, because as we know in our organisational change, the practices that are most vigorously defended by an organization are the ones that are usually the hardest to change, and are closest to its cultural DNA, its cultural reference system. Usually those are around budgeting, allocation of resources, risk mitigation, etc. 

I don’t know if this is making sense, or not? 


No, it does, it does. One of the questions that comes to mind is, how you decide what’s important to measure? In business, certainly in private sector business, ultimately the focus is financial results, whether that be revenue growth, margins, or ultimately earnings and share performance for publicly traded firms. Given that you’ve done quite a fair amount of research in the field on quantifying some of the impact of cultural change, and trying to decide what to measure, is there a way to tie effective changes and behavior to financial results, or financial metrics? That’s a big question, certainly linkages would seem obvious, we’ve got a thriving industry of business management books that are focused on exactly achieving better financial outcomes; but what’s your view on how different organizations should think about what they measure, and the behaviors that they can monitor and change, and how those can tie ultimately to financial results? 

I wish I could sit here and tell you we’ve discovered the Holy Grail of linking culture to financial metrics, and we’ve figured it all out. I would probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if that was the case! 

Bottle it up and sell it as a service! 

I would say right now it’s a bit of a fool’s errand unfortunately, because the idea that you can financially measure the output of culture is predicated on this notion of the bigness of culture, that culture is causal, that one company equals one culture, in fact most big organizations have many-many different cultures within them, different cultural models underneath them. The myth is that leaders shape culture, leaders can allocate resources and set agendas, which in terms shape practices, which may change culture, but it’s not a directly causal linear process. And people think of culture synonymous with values, norms or attitudes, or language, and that is also a mistake, that’s an attribution error. Values and norms may reflect some aspect of this cultural reference system that runs in the background, but it’s not the same and it’s not synonymous with it, it’s just like trying to change the operating system by focusing on one app, the app is not going to change the operating system necessarily.  

So, there’s all these myths, and tied to that is this notion that somehow if we just get the culture right, the financial results will follow, and we can just measure this out in some kind of linear way. I’m here to tell you, unfortunately that’s not the case, we’re a long way from being able to do that. What we can say though is, there are proxy measures that we could probably use around behavior, around throughput, around the ability to embrace new technologies, and these are sort of behavioral, anecdotal soft measures that combined with a basket of some of the harder more traditional measures can be used to paint a raw shot picture, or an impressionistic picture of something to do with culture change. But we’re probably still 50 years away from having the technology to do this. 


You made an interesting point about leadership, I think that cuts to an enormous disconnect, at least in popular perception of the impact of what a leader can accomplish in changing a culture. When I think about a successful cultural change, you’ve seen these big organizations, IBM in the 1990’s with Lou Gerstner, and of course they’ve had some subsequent challenges recently, but I think about Microsoft since Satya Nadella’s taken over as CEO, and whether its fear or not, he certainly is getting a lot of credit for some very positive results there, and you do hear the perception that a leader can have a big impact on an organizations culture. What’s a fair way to think about how to allocate either responsibility or the blame, for leaders, and how should a leader or somebody who is taking over a business, or division, effectively think about their own limitations in terms of trying to change a culture, and what their limitations may be? 

First off, let me say something heretical for a practitioner, our firm does a lot of leadership development work and we are very steeped in the leadership development literature, and believe highly in leadership, so with that caveat let me just say, leadership is overrated in the culture business. I have utmost respect for Satya Nadella, I had the pleasure of meeting him, he’s a highly skilled executive, he’s a fantastic choice for Microsoft, and by all accounts Microsoft culture is shifting. I’m not there anymore, the scientist in me is always a little skeptical of those claims, but clearly what Satya has been doing, from what I understand from my contacts there and what I’ve read, is that he has done the thing that leaders need to do when they think about culture change, especially moving a large monolith like 100,000 employees like Microsoft, is the leadership focus is on how do you set a different agenda? How do you allocate resources differently? How do you make a shift in emphasizing different priorities? Then on top of that, how do you ensure that your practices are aligned to support those outcomes that you articulated?  

In other words, a lot of what leaders do in most organizations is set the vision or establish what the value should be around a positive culture change, but they kind of leave the organization to its own devices to figure out what to do about that. From my cognitive perspective, again, that is just backwards, the brain is shaped by practice, by the way you do things, and by doing things that means the organizations or organizational practices need to be highly aligned and congruent with a desire to future state that you identify. So, leaders can do a very important thing which is 

  • Allocate resources,  
  • Set agendas,  
  • Define priorities,  
  • Set strategy,  

And then ensure that all the practices in the organization, everything from the way you  

  • Go to market 
  • To the way you hire, 
  • To the basis on which you develop and promote people,  
  • To your compensation and reward strategy,  
  • To the way you budget,  
  • The way you sanction risk, and so-on.  

There’s a basket of about 25 key practices that you can engage in, all of those are aligned to the end state that you want. 

It sounds conceptually intuitive or maybe easy, very-very hard to do in practice because organizations, especially large ones, have different departmental agendas, there’s different sub-cultures, all conspired to get in the way. 


This gets much more complicated of course when you have acquisition-hungry large businesses that are constantly bringing in new teams. How do you align the evaluation of culture, from the stand-point of a company that’s trying to make acquisitions make their M&A strategy successful, to last through the integration of an acquisition for instance? What are some of the dynamics that a company needs to be thinking about more broadly than the business-fit, or the technology or assets that they’re acquiring? 

Well, you and I both know the statistic that emanate failure rates, right? They’re staggering, in terms of failure is defined as not returning value to the acquirer, yet we persist in merger and acquisition at a frenzy. The big frontier of course in merging, acquisition, integration effectiveness is all around the people side, the soft side of things, beyond just the basic integration. One of the keys as you might suspect given what we’ve just been talking about, is to surface the mental models of all the parties, all the actors involved, surface the tacit knowledge system through which these groups see the world, and… 

  • How they make sense of their world.  
  • How they understand risk.  
  • How they formulate opportunity.  
  • How they think about what success does or doesn’t look like. 

Not in just the acquisition sphere, but in general.  

What is good, and what does good look like for them? These are tricky questions, there’s social dynamics, the normative pressures between the acquirer and the acquired. This is especially why you see organizations like the GE model; GE well-known in technology, was to essentially establish an independent business unit. Other companies that we know, clients of ours have taken a very deliberate step to acquire technology combines, but essentially keep them quite separate from the legacy mainline businesses, which is a clever strategy in the short-term for preserving the unique cultural perspectives of those organizations. The question becomes, how do you start to realize the value in integrating those new technology businesses, with the legacy industrial businesses? And where and how do those synergies start to add value? 

So, the key to all that in our view is, it is about bringing leadership teams together, allowing these hard conversations to happen, allowing these tacit mental models, these tacit views of the world to come out, to be surfaced. All of that takes time, all that takes skillful facilitation, all of that is potentially conflictual and messy, and in companies where the emphasis is on speed in this day and age, it really precludes a lot of that kind of work. It’s another paradox Ed that in our view the key to successful integration is all about people, and surfacing their collective mental models, making sense of that, and working those issues in a productive way, which is all about getting people into a room and having our conversations all the time. 


No doubt. When you look forward, given all of the new insights and practices, and best practices that are starting to surface, over the next decade how do you see first of all your field evolving, and can you point to how a successful organization can successfully take advantage of some of the insights in cognitive anthropology, and some of the work that you’ve been doing? 

If I sounded a little bit doom and gloom, I am inherently quite optimistic! I do think the culture industry, and it is an industry, is very right for disruption. The tenants on the industry are really built up of 100-year-old science, or pseudo-science, if built on anything at all. So, if there was an organisational development arena ripe for change, it’s the culture field, because its full of half-truths and naivety.  

Having said all that, the next 10, 20, 30 years of culture practice in business and industry are going to be phenomenally exciting, we’re on the verge of radical new ways of thinking about culture. The trickle-down effect from neuroscience, and cultural neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, the cognitive branches of those disciplines is just beginning. So, there’s a lot to look forward to.  

The organizations that can take advantage of some of this emerging science I think are going to be fine, their cultural change in investment is going to return something. Most culture change programs fail to return any ROI, but that ironically or paradoxically is going to take doing some of the things that I’ve been talking about, it’s going to 

  • Take an emphasis on practices, not an emphasis on pronouncements. 
  • Move the discussion away from values and talk about outcomes.  
  • Focus on deeply seated organizational practices that are getting in the way of your desired change. 
  • Its going to take leadership teams having hard conversations and surfacing their mantel models, and assumptions about how the world works. 

Forcing them into how they might change some of that, all of that takes time, so part of the answer to your question is, successful culture change also requires a long-term commitment. Many, many culture change programs are emphasizing on change everything in six-months, speed, doing things quickly. The neuroscience, the cognitive science would argue very much against that, you can’t really change the way the brain is wired in a one-shot deal, it’s a sustained effort. Again, thinking about a musician and practicing, how long it takes to develop. 

The brain does change, neuropathways do change, but they change over time with sustained new experience, sustained new exposure. So, things take time, culture is a five-year effort at least, at a minimum, and that’s if you’re doing everything right. 


That’s super-helpful to keep into perspective. 

My final question is about a recommendation, I always love to ask if you’ve got a good book or other resource recommendation for our listeners? 

I know of no popular book on organizational culture that’s worked over time, I always hate to say that. The book I wrote is really an academic book for academics, researchers, and practitioners, but everything I’ve been talking about is in that book. 

A couple of books do come to mind though, if one wants to venture further afield out of business books and into the stuff I’ve been talking about, there’s a couple of seminal books that would give the reader a lot of grounding in the stuff we’ve been talking about, and they’re very readable; one is the very eminent cognitive anthropologist, Ed Hutchins, he’s out of the university in California, San Diego, and he wrote a book called Cognition in the Wild, and it’s about all the stuff we’ve been talking about. He’s done a lot of work on how technology and technological practices shape the brain, and shape culture. 

Another book is again very much in the cognitive anthropology field, a book called Culturize as a System’, by the anthropologist David Kronenfeld, again very readable, its articulating all the stuff I’ve just been talking about.  

Those are the touchstones for me. If you really want to understand what’s happening in the culture field, you have to go beyond business, cause this stuff is not happening in the business world. 


Absolutely. Those are great recommendations David, and it’s been fascinating hearing your insights and your experience on these topics, choose your metaphor but it’s certainly opening up an enormous deep field of additional fields/areas of study, and its enormously complex, but it’s heartening to hear your optimism as well when we’re applying what we’ve learned, to organisational change, business transformation, and of course managing mergers and acquisitions, integrations and moving forward. 

So, with that I’d like to just thank you David White, our guest, the principal of ONTOS Global. We’ll be posting a link to, ‘Rethinking Culture – Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations’, your book. 

I’m Ed Maguire Insights Partner at Momenta Partners. David thank you again for taking the time, and thanks everyone for listening. 

Thank you, Ed.