Culture & Cowdung – the Conventional Wisdom of the Dominant Group

We all have a personal paradigm, a filter that enables us to make sense of the world around us. Its presence is reassuring, as without it we would be overwhelmed by the enormous amount of stimuli that surrounds us every moment of every day.

Personal paradigms are essentially a collection of unquestioned assumptions and beliefs that for us are self-evident truths, they:

  • Operate largely at a sub-conscious level – we rarely think about the way we think about things, we just think about them. For more information on this see my ‘Time to think about the way we think about things’ blog click here’ .
  • Dictate how we react to problems and recognise opportunities – one person’s problem is another person’s opportunity;
  • Exhibit themselves in our behaviours – what we do and say gives clues to what we value and believe;
  • Act to preserve themselves – they hate being challenged and will defend any counter-view with creativity and vigour;

Eventually our personal paradigms lose their power to help us succeed, they have in effect a ‘best before date’ which, once passed, the amount of problems we face build up until a discontinuous change of view becomes inevitable. This is known as a paradigm shift and often results in a transformational change, not always for the better!

When seeking to understand and align organisational culture to strategic intent it is prudent to establish your starting point. Search for what are the underlying assumptions and beliefs that are collectively held to be a true and together form the ‘Cowdung’ within your organisation? This is worth discovering as unhinging one or more of these long-held beliefs can create some interesting opportunities to re-align the culture to reflect a new reality.

If, for example your organisation is seeking to grow by acquisition one of the most sacred assumptions that needs to be put under the spotlight is the ‘we know best’ assumption. Quite often the acquired organisation has developed smarter ways of working that make them such an attractive proposition to purchase in the first place. However watch how the acquiring organisation will defend and cling on to their preferred ways of working simply as they are more familiar and comfortable with them, thereby effectively dissipating the value the acquisition can bring to the organisation. This is one of the reasons that newly acquired high performing organisations are so often ‘ring-fenced’ so they do not become ‘infected’ with the ‘Cowdung’ of the parent company.

Corporate Cowdung is composed of unquestioned assumptions, transmitted through war stories and folklore and is internalised daily by copying the behaviours we see around us.

  • It is in what you pay attention to and what you ignore, what you reward and what you penalise.
  • Its influence is subtle and pervasive and it is seldom, if ever, made explicit.
  • At its core is the business paradigm.


The business paradigm can, if it remains unquestioned and unchallenged, become a collective self-limiting belief that prevents an organisation breaking through a performance ceiling. To change it takes determination and persistence and this is the playground of Change Makers everywhere.

To find out more on how to tackle such challenges please contact us and we can begin to explore where the ‘Cowdung’ in your organisation may be holding you back.

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