Culture 3 of 7: Identify the big shapes

December 20, 2018

While having specific goals is not possible in a complex system, and any cultural change is complex, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have a sense of direction and/or purpose. When a painter starts on their canvass they have a sense of what they are going to create. There are obvious questions such as is this a portrait or a landscape? There may be less obvious questions linked to a historical context or school. The painting may be the final execution of a series of detailed sketches or something more experimental. However you answer this the first thing to do is to identify the big shapes, the objects and/or form which will dominate the painting. Now my wood carver of yesterday’s post may have a lot of that determined for him/her in that a major knot in the wood or growth as a result of a canker (lots and lots in that metaphor when it comes or organisations). The nature of the wood creates a constraint around which their art develops. Mapping of course should show up the existing patterns and with those patterns the range what is possible at what effort. At his point (while I remember) I will link to an older post looking at ways you can change attractors to give you a sense of where I am going here. this

So what are the big shapes in culture change? Well, they are not goal based objectives or collections of homilies. Now this isn’t a complete list but I’m going to use the Cynefin framework to give an idea of types and to be very, very clear, its not complete, its illustrative. One reason to do this is to oppose one size fits all solutions that you see in much of the idealistic literature, or maybe I should say the ideological literature as they end up being the same thing.

  1. Obvious is all about structure, things that need to be, which can be mandated. Structures and forms to prevent fraud fit into this space. Compliance with legal requirements and the like are all needed. Some of this will be process, some people. The balance is key here. I remember in one IBM project we gave a group of consultants a full time bookkeeper to manage their expenses and timesheets. Prior to that a process of automation had, in theory, made it a minor task for the consultant through a fully designed Lotus Notes system. What we found is that the bookkeeper more than paid for themselves. They knew the costs codes, knew how the system worked and because they were taking away an unwanted burden the consultants co-operated. We had higher compliance, higher utilisation and overall higher process because we realised that for some things people were more effective at creating structure than process. It didn’t last; someone in HR found out and it didn’t match the case they had made for full automation and layoffs of admin staff. Despite the evidence the politics won out. I’m giving that as a warning and a teaching case – structure can be achieved in many ways and how you do it determines culture. Here we had a culture of compliance not because of the process, but because of the social obligations that supported the process.
  2. Complicated is more about freedom within constraints, its about professionalism and peer respect and validation.  While in the obvious domain is more about top down determined choices here its more about respect, understanding the limits of non-personal trust.  I should be able to trust a Doctor to look after me and make the right diagnosis if they have been properly qualified, have the right experience and I tell them the truth and submit to reasonable tests.  If the company wants me to consult a witch doctor (or the modern equivalent such as a 360 test interpreter whose been through a two day accreditation course or a wellness consultant) then trust breaks down and behaviour in the domain becomes inauthentic – when that happens the culture starts to break down as practice, belief and human needs start to diverge.  If professional judgement is overridden by political need without accepted (the tense is deliberate) agreement then the culture is starting to break down as practice contradicts declaration.  Evidence based policy should be the norm not policy driven evidence.
  3. Complex is where culture becomes the real driver of performance.  In a complex domain everything is connected with everything else mostly in non-obvious ways, very small actions can ripple quickly to create large scale and often fatal changes in belief and value systems.  In my first major article on Cynefin I made the distinction between rule based and ideation cultures.   The first (ordered) can be defined and made explicit; the second (unordered) are the ways we do things around here, the informal obligations and interactions that made things work, or which prevent progress.   This is the area where narrative mapping of culture is critical and we will be launching three major offerings here in the new year.  I’ll amend the blog and link when that is complete.   Basically one maps decisions to identify the reality of culture in an organisation, the other seeks experiential stories that would be communicated to new joiners and the third uses illustrations or art to stimulate thinking.   It’s also an area where we have in the past created sacred story books, something to which I will return in the final post.  I’ve laid out the mechanisms for change here in a previous series of posts but they need expanding.  That will be part of the lunch of the new culture mapping options in the new year.
  4. Chaotic, as I keep having to remind people, is a transitionary state.  You don’t do cultural change when you fall into chaos, you do cultural survival.   But there will be memories so how you act now will carry a long memory.  A crisis is an opportunity for change, but fairness is key and showing some respect of principles vital.  The contingencies of the present may not survive the scrutiny of the future and this is a domain that demands judgement and integrity in leadership more than others.  If you can demonstrate that then it is also an opportunity for change; the old patterns are broken new patterns may now be possible.
    Now that is an unsought after crisis, but if we deliberately create chaos there are more possibilities.   One technique we use is to create infographics and present them in SenseMaker® for interpretation by broad populations without collusion or interaction.  That allows to present different perspectives back to people.   You saw it like this, they saw it like that, what does it mean?   This is one of the liminal area of Cynefin: complex intruding into chaos. Micro-chaos, creating cross silo teams working under high pressure.  Used properly chaos is a domain in which change can be initiated and tested.  The big thing here however is scaffolding and that is for another day and another post – although premium members can get access to a recent webinar.  The basic idea is to create some structure and see what emerges, either removing the structure as something sustainable emerges or creating a structure which vanishes of itself over time.

In the two ordered domains culture arises from contradiction between what everyone more or less agrees should be the case and management action. It’s the domain where poor culture arises from a failure to act with integrity. For unorder its more about finding what is possible, seeing what you can change, responding to opportunities and also creating the opportunity for those opportunities!



Banner picture by Steve Johnson from Pexels
In text picture by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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