For a long time I have known that the idea that culture change can be managed is a myth. A culture is emergent and is the result of millions of interactions, behaviours, artifacts and stories that people build up over time. It is unpredictable and results in surprise. The idea that a “culture change initiative” can be rolled out from the top of an organization is not only a myth, it’s a hidden form of colonization. And worse, the idea that people need to be changed in the way the boss determines if we are to become the kind of place that we all aspire too is cruel and violent.
So what to do when an organization says that its culture needs change? Until I had stumbled over David Snowden’s work, I had few practical tools, principles and practices for doing this work. Since working with the theory that Dave has assembled and translating it into praxis, I have come up with a number o
Here are a few key notes for working with people who ask me to help them with that.
- Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.
- Culture includes stories but it is not a story. This is important because simply changing the story of the organization will not change the culture. Instead you need to create ways for people to interact differently and see what comes of it.
- Cultural evolution is not predictable and cannot be led to a pre-determined character. You can aspire all you want to a particular future culture but it is impossible to script or predict that evolution.
- Start by getting clear about the actual work. In my experience people use the term “culture change” as a proxy for the real work that needs to be done: improving employee relations, becoming more risk tolerant, shifting leadership styles…whatever it is, it’s best to start with getting clear what is ACTUALLY going on before assuming that the problem is the “culture.”
- Look at what actually is. Studying the way things are is important, because that helps you to identify what you are actually doing. It seems simple, but it’s important to do it in a way that doesn’t bring a pre-existing framework to the work. You have to look at the patterns from the work that you already do, not from how it illuminates a pre-existing model.
- Work with emergence to understand patterns together. Using tools such as anecdote circles, organizations can discover the patterns that are present in the current environment. Anecdote circles generate small data fragements that describe actual actions and activities. Taken together and worked through, patterns become clear, like the process of generating a Sierpinsky triangle. Out of large data sets, hidden patterns appear.
- Identify those patterns and discuss ways to address them with safe to fail experiments. Run a session to create several ideas that are coherent with the patterns, design multiple small experiments to try to shift the patterns. Institute rigorous monitoring and learning and allow for experiments to fail.
- Support new ideas with appropriate resources. If you really want to change the interactions between people you need to resource these changes with time, money and attention. The enemy of focused innovation is time. Even allowing employees to work on something a half day a week could be enough to create and implement new things. Butif they have to do it on top of the full workload they have, nothing will get done.
- Learn as you go. Developmental evaluation is they way to go with new forms of emergent practice. To be strategic about how change is happening, it’s important to design and build in evaluation at the outset.
These are just notes and practices, but are becoming standard operating procedures in my world when working with groups and organizations who are trying to address that elusive idea of “culture change.”