Corporate Culture is a collection of “cultural algorithms”


Our modern life is ruled by algorithms.  While almost all of them are invisible to you and I, we interact with them every day. Searching on Google involves an algorithm. The ATM machine uses algorithms. Credit card purchases use algorithms. Your Google Map and SatNav uses an algorithm to determine the best route, whether walking, driving or taking the bus. Even deciding whether to go shopping in the morning or afternoon uses a mental algorithm.

So, what is an algorithm?  According to Wikipedia, “an algorithm is a procedure or formula for solving a problem. The word derives from the name of the mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was part of the royal court in Baghdad and who lived from about 780 to 850.  Al-Khwarizmi’s work is the likely source for the word algebra as well.”

An algorithm is a list of rules to follow in order to solve a problem. In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm usually means a small procedure that solves a recurrent problem. In the case of whether to go shopping in the morning or not, we use multiple “unconscious” rules and preferences, such as “I hate morning shopping” or “I like to get shopping done early so the rest of my day is free”, and many others.

And since algorithms are so ubiquitous in modern life, there is a very active educational movement to teach children about algorithms and how to write computer code. The BBC now has a children’s website for learning computer coding and building algorithms, called BBC Bitesize. And of course, Khan Academy has a whole series of presentations on algorithms.

One of the most complex algorithms is used to teach a computer to play chess against
machine chessGrand Masters, with each move preceded by thousands of possible options, built-in rules and examples of past games, all programmed in and used to help solve the problem of: “What is my next best move in order to eventually win the game?”

And on 11 May 1997, IBM’s computer named Deep Blue defeated Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov.

Algorithms and Corporate Culture

A very useful way to better understand corporate culture within your organisation is to see it as a collection of “cultural algorithms”, each one understood by those in the company to be “the way we do things around here”.  We know that corporate culture is the collection of habitual behaviours used routinely (either consciously or out of habit) to help solve business problems, guide interactions with peers and other departments  and customers. Trying to describe behaviours is difficult, but putting them into the language of algorithms tends to make them easier to understand.

In other words, a “cultural algorithm” is a standard set of actions and reactions, like:

When A happens, we habitually do B.  or

When A happens, we habitually do B, because doing B gets a (mostly positive) result (C), while doing something different may get a mostly negative result (D).


Most cultural algorithms are built into the social DNA of the company and new employees quickly learn that to fit in and be a “part of the group or department”, their behaviour needs to follow the various internal cultural algorithms.  It’s not that people change their values or basic beliefs, but social pressure to fit in and belong is strong and most quickly assimilate the various cultural algorithms. They adopt the required behaviours implied by the “cultural algorithms”.

Here are some of the more obvious cultural algorithms that, if you can complete the equation, will help you better understand your unique corporate culture, and subcultures:

  • When we see an employee behaving differently from our company values, we usually …
  • When we suspect that there is a suspicious business activity going on in our department, we usually …
  • When we suspect that there is a suspicious business activity going on in another department, we normally …
  • When we see a customer looking lost or confused, we usually ….
  • When a rude customer complains about something, we normally …..

While managers and executives hope that these situations will be responded to rationally and based on the company values, that is not always the case.  Customers get ignored because management is more interested in stock levels being checked repeatedly.  Complaining customers get confronted with “company policy says” rather than “let’s see if we can find a solution” because exceptions to company policy are seen as negative by upper management.

These and a thousand others are habitual cultural algorithms, and they may not follow company values or rational guidelines.

If you don’t understand your corporate culture, then you don’t really understand your business.


Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!




About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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2 Responses to Corporate Culture is a collection of “cultural algorithms”

  1. Hello John! This article on algorithms was “spot on.” I was doing some work with Thomson Reuters and showed a TedTalk on algorithms, then asked, “what does this have to do with culture?” Answer: “Everything!” A friend of mine and I have been working on a book that encourages business leaders to think differently. It uses chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and biomimicry as foundational challenges for how we think about business. We hope to start a good conversation as you do with your blogs. Well done and I enjoy our simpatico.


  2. Pingback: What to do about Organizational Silos? Try the Virtual Silo | Public Works Knowledge Network

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