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Surfacing Assumptions

March 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 3
by Michael G. Daigneault, CCD

Knowing what you're assuming can boost board strategic thinking

March 14, 2014

This article is bonus coverage from “A Matter of Culture” from the April 2014 issue of Credit Union Management magazine.

Edgar Schein presents culture as a series of assumptions a person makes about a group in which he or she participates.

“We tend to think we can separate strategy from culture, but we fail to notice that in most organizations, strategic thinking is deeply colored by spoken and unspoken assumptions about who [these organizations] are and what their mission is,” writes Schein, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Hence the famous phrase, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Schein groups assumptions into three basic levels:

1. Artifacts

  • all the things you would first see, hear or feel when you encounter an unfamiliar group;
  • observed behavior, routines (easy to see–hard to decipher their true meaning).

2. Espoused beliefs and values

  • ideals, goals, articulated values and stated aspirations;
  • ideologies;
  • rationalizations.

3. Basic underlying assumptions

  • unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs and values.

Each assumption can have an article–or book–written about it. Here are just some of the possible assumptions credit union leaders should challenge:

  • Vision & mission: Why are we all here? What are we collectively trying to achieve? What is our credit union’s purpose?
  • Strategic goals: What strategic goals do we set as part of trying to realize our vision and mission? What is the process for setting the goals? Who really does it? 
  • Means to achieve goals (structure, systems and processes): How do we actually go about realizing our goals? Do we have systems and procedures in place at the management level? At the board and committee levels?
  • Measuring goals and results: How will we know if we achieve our goals? How do we identify and measure success? What results are we trying to achieve? What information should we gather and share about our results?
  • Failure: What do we do if something does not go as planned? How do we define failure? If something does fail, do we have a plan? Do we just react to the circumstances? Do we genuinely learn from our failures, or do we simply try to put them behind us as quickly as possible?
  • Common language and information architecture: What are the common words and language we use to refer to things? What is the common framework of communication? What are all the ways we communicate with each other and receive information?
  • Individual and group boundaries: How do we respect each other’s and the collective group’s boundaries? How do we know what those boundaries are? How do we know when someone has “gone too far?”
  • Accountability, rewards and punishments: Do we hold each other accountable? How do we consciously or unconsciously reward desirable behavior and punish behavior deemed unacceptable?
  • Rules of engagement: What are the understandings or assumptions for how we interact with each other? With members? With those outside the credit union?
  • Power, authority and status: Who is responsible for what? What are the delegations of authority? How do we determine what gets done, how it gets done–and who has the authority to change the direction of things?

Can such assumptions be identified in the board room? Yes, Schein says.

“If we combine insider knowledge with outsider questions, assumptions can be brought to the surface, but the process of inquiry has to be interactive, with the outsider continuing to probe until assumptions have really been teased out and have led to a feeling of greater understanding on the part of both the outsider and the insiders.”

Michael G. Daigneault, CCD, is CEO of Quantum Governance, L3C, a low-profit limited liability service organization dedicated to the public good. It is one of the very first such legal entities in the United States. A CUES strategic partner, Quantum Governance provides thoughtful governance and strategy assessments—as well as dynamic retreats—to credit unions, leagues and nonprofits throughout the United States.

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