Inside Disruption Blog

Ask About the Hippos: Organizational Culture and DEM Practice

Tim Piers
September 6, 2017

I was watching a great video of Ernesto Sirolli titled “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” and was struck by how its message parallels our response to potentially disruptive events. In this video Ernesto relates a formative experience he had while working for an NGO in Africa in the 1970s. His team was trying to teach farming and felt the natives were uninterested. They had planted tomatoes which were growing like wildfire and ripening beautifully, when, one morning they returned to the fields to observe that hippos had ravaged their crop. When they asked the Africans why they hadn’t mentioned the hippos, the response was… “You didn’t ask.”


Before we arrive onsite to address a potentially disruptive event, it is worth considering, how can I adapt my practice to this organization’s culture? It might be important to ask the point-of-contact or leadership about their organization’s culture during the management consultation. Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn developed a model of competing values for organizations which correspond to four organizational culture types.[1]

  • Clan culture: This friendly environment is akin to a large family. The organization’s “glue” is loyalty and tradition, and they promote teamwork, participation, and consensus.
  • Adhocracy culture: This dynamic environment values creativity and risk-taking. The entrepreneurial spirit here promotes growth, initiative, and freedom.
  • Market culture: This environment is competitive and results-focused. High expectations are common, and reputation and success is highly valued.
  • Hierarchy culture: This environment is formalized and structured. Rigid adherence to policy and procedure is common, and results and stability are valued here.


The differences in culture may determine the kind of message management wants to give or the approaches that staff will be most comfortable with. The employees from a clan culture may be more comfortable sharing with each other or management than those from a market or hierarchy culture. A market culture organization may be looking to the impact your services will have on their employees, while those in a hierarchy culture may value the stability you can foster.


Employees and management will feel respected and “heard” when you take their organizational culture into account while onsite. In the aftermath of a potentially disruptive event organizations are looking to you to be competent, professional, and… a good fit. Remember that although you are the expert on disruptive event management, they are the experts on their organization. Don’t forget to ask about the hippos.