Culture 2 of 7: the canvass

December 19, 2018

I’m using the metaphor of a painting to provide structure to this series and all paintings have to start somewhere. One of the reasons for this is the sense of doing something with intent. I’m not attempting an anthropological treatise here, my focus is on the ubiquitous attempts to engineer culture change in organisations a task that matches the original meaning of a forlorn hope, a mistranslation of verloren hoop whichmeans a lost heap! In the English Army during the Napoleonic Wars commissions as officers were purchased rather than being won on merit. If Daddy was rich enough and you had the right social background you could be given a regiment to play with regardless of experience. The only alternative for the competent poor was to volunteer to be first into the breech during a siege. Your chances of survival were pretty slim, but if you made it then promotion followed. Although as any fan of the Sharpe series knows, you would not gain social acceptance. One can admire such people but it’s not the best strategy. When you hear about major culture changes achieved in organisations its worth remembering all those which failed and the many many casualties. The failure to understand that if there are a sufficient number or attempts at something, some will work is a significant problem in ‘management science’ which has an excessive fondness for drawing radical conclusions based on limited or inadequate data.

An artist can choose between panels and fabric, pre-stretched or otherwise. They can leave the canvass unprimed or primed, sand the first layer of gesso or not and so on. They are starting from scratch, albeit within the constraints of available materials and their own still and experience. Most cultural initiatives I have lived though (and its too many) have started on the assumption that the organisation is a blank canvas onto which they can impose a fantasy picture of some platitudinous future state. If they do prepare the canvas they tend to a scorched earth approach which leaves structural weaknesses. The illustrations I’ve used for this post are of old wood, with the remnants of paint: your canvas has a past. OK you might be justified in using an industrial sander followed by multiple layers of primer but that is costly, may not be ethical and may miss an opportunity or two. You may need to remove flaking paint; dry or wet rot will need to be cut away and replaced, possibly treated but you may be better taking a different approach. Previous attempts at change may have left residual chemical traces that could adversely react with any treatment you attempt. If you spend anytime with a wood carver you will discover they first explore the potential of the grain of the wood before they decide what to do. Working with what you have and moving forward in small stages is a more resilient and less risky approach.

So lets move on from the metaphors and create a few simple heuristic before you get started on any cultural change initiative:

  1. The only time you get to start from scratch is if there is no significant historical context. Even with recruitment of all your staff from scratch the come with histories most of which are unstated and not fully known. Most of the time you have staff, you have context.
  2. Even if there was nothing there at the start you need to understand your raw materials, and your own relationship, before you start.   Preparing the canvas is all about understanding what you have – situational awareness – in order to understand the limitations of what is possible and the energy gradients involved in making any shift.
  3. The energy gradient concept is key here – all of evolution tends to energy minimisation.  In cultural change beliefs, common myths and the like all create patterns  that both enable and entrap human action and interaction.  Where they are loosely coupled change is easy, if tightly coupled less so.
  4. Any culture is, of its nature a complex adaptive system.  That means that the only thing you know for certain about any intervention is that it will have unintended consequences.  So the next aspect of your map (and we are talking about a map here) is to understand and create containment strategies by which said consequences can be managed, or at least mitigated.  Returning briefly to get another metaphor, don’t release a flood without first building the channels to direct and contain it.
  5. Remember that the most important expression of culture is not what people say, but what they do.  Nothing undermines change more than hypocrisy, the gap between what executives and colleagues say and how they actually behave.  We are justified by works not by faith … 
  6. So workshops in which people can talk about what they would like is all well and good but if it is not translated into action it will be rapidly undermined.  In a sense it is a lot better to do things and see what stories are told in consequence – then take those stories and make them viral.  If you find something about the current culture bad, go out and do things that change people’s perception.  As I’ve taught leaders for years – if there are negative stories about you don’t argue they are wrong go and do things that make them increasingly difficult to tell.
  7. So preparing the canvass is as much about exploration and experimentation as it is about conventional mapping.   When I used to be involved in geological mapping I used to have to walk in multiple straight lines and then identify features and note anomalies; intrusive invasion followed before we could complete the map.  Sorry back to a metaphor again but it makes the point.   

So taking things as a whole, it less about preparing the canvass, more about understanding it and what potentials exist and taking various actions, with different consequences and costs before you make any major commitment. You can’t engineer culture ….

Depressingly there people who call themselves cultural engineers ….


Photos by Magda Ehlers and Kaboompics from Pexels

Just explaining …

My hopes of freeing up time to complete this series on culture while trekking the Great Wall in early December provided to be a false hope. Mind you the various email borne encumbrances which prevented my having time to write taught me a lot about cultural incompatibilities, not to mention issues of integrity & trust; a story I hope to be free to tell next year. The Christmas break is reserved for a book chapter I have to write on sense-making for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Systems Thinking and I also want to write a Christmas blog series on ethics get some walking in and watch a few rugby matches and operas so something may have to give! But the culture series is something I started, so I need to finish it before then and I’m going to achieve that with a little but of backdating.

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