How to Recognize (and Respond to) an Organization's Culture

Idealist planners succeed by understanding and adapting to an organization's culture, whether it is a bureaucracy or a nimble nonprofit.

Organizational culture is defined here as "shared assumptions of individuals' participation in the organization. Often taken for granted by the actors themselves, these assumptions can be identified through stories, special language, norms, institutional ideology, and attitudes that emerge from individual and collective behavior." (Tierney, 1988 pp. 4)

Organizational Culture Scenarios

Planning organizations' cultures vary greatly. To illustrate the differences, consider the organizational-type scenarios below.

Environmental reviewer for a state transportation agency

The work is done in a large, centralized organization whose mission is maintaining environmental review standards according to state and federal law. The planner performs defined roles in a hierarchical organization. The work emphasizes process, consistency, and established metrics. Recommendations go up the hierarchy and decisions come down, often slowly. The planner is a specialist with a predictable workload.

GIS analyst for a multinational engineering and consulting firm

This complex organization also has many organizational layers; systems are focused on profitability. Choices and strategies are made around financial targets set by central management. The planner's job is primarily technical, responding to assignments and clients while meeting billable-hour requirements. The planner is a specialist who is rewarded for efficient work.

Land use planner for a small city

The job includes current, long-range, and every other planning issue that arises. The city manager has direct contact with staff. Group values determine outcomes more than formal methods of planning or influencing. In the best cases, employees consider themselves a team. The planner is a generalist with varied tasks.

Market analyst for a nonprofit housing developer

This job focuses on innovative ways of achieving the organization's mission. Good ideas are more important than organization protocols or deference to job titles. The organization is flexible but can be chaotic. The planner's job changes frequently — quick responses, independent thinking, and competence in a dynamic environment are valued. The planner is an entrepreneurial generalist.

The point here is not to recommend one organizational setting over another one, but to emphasize the importance of understanding organizational culture. First, seek jobs that are in your comfort zone as work environments. Of course, a perfect fit is usually not available, and you might learn something valuable working in an organization that is not your natural choice. And second, pay attention to organizational culture at work. Consider how to structure your role and work patterns to be most effective.

Lastly, note that the functioning culture may be different from what is espoused in mission statements and organization lore. Before joining an organization, ask around about the workplace culture. When working for an organization, be attentive to formal organizational structure and informal organizational norms. The better you understand these, the more effective you will be.


Tierney, W.G. 1988. "Organizational culture and higher education: Defining the essentials." Journal of Higher Education 59 (1): pp. 2-21.

This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Thinkstock photo.

About the Author
Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy.

April 25, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP