Culture is entangled

January 25, 2015

Another Gaping Void cartoon for this second post on culture, which makes the point that change initiatives come and go but relationships that we build can last for ever.  My post of yesterday targeted the single causal model that underpins so many simplistic consultancy initiatives than claim simplicity.   If you can find one thing to blame, then there is only one thing to change and life is susceptible to the recipe approaches that are all to common.  Manufacturing process replacing artisan capability in what is meant to be a service business.

In practice (and in theory) culture is tangled, indistinct and difficult to tie down.  Cynthia Kurtz and I used Alicia Juarrero’s idea of Brambles in a thicket as the title of our article on network cultures and how they work.  Those interested in cultural change will see a lot that article of relevance, including techniques such as social network stimulate which engage employees in collaborative actions that change culture by doing not talking.

One of the ways we map culture is through significant decisions that have effected individuals which for them evidence what culture means (we avoid platitudes and evaluative statements focusing instead on actual stories.  We also use non-hypothesis base questions that don’t assume an answer.   So ​What story would you tell your best friend if they were offered a job in your work group is a non-hypothesis based question.  The stock take I criticised yesterday asks Around here, displaying initiative gets you… which contains a hypothesis that restricts what will be discovered.  If you suggest things to people they will respond accordingly, what really matters if if initiative some up in the stories in a statistically significant way.   So to take an example we might ask people to place their best friend story into a triad as shown:

  1. It recognises that there is always some trade off between different positive (or negative qualities)
  2. The respondent does not know what is the right answer
  3. The inherent gamification engages the novelty receptive part of the brain, it things deeper
  4. The approach handles ambiguity and allows for continuous scanning.

The whole point is to understand that day to day life for employees, from which culture arises, is always entangled, never simple.   In continuous monitoring we would use several of these triads to allow rapid feedback loops showing overall patterns by different groups, geographies, management levels etc.  The whole idea is to show a living breathing landscape of culture that also shows what is static, what is dynamic (think granite cliffs and sand banks).  Simple representation with supporting narrative; not simplistic causal models.

It also allows us to look (using journals or panels for example) at how culture shifts based on customer interaction as opposed to internal events and reviews.   We can get customers to gather stories about our culture (something I am now doing in the context of investment screening when employee and customer attitudes are as important as management intention).  We can look at similarities between customer culture and employee culture (something we also do with archetypes, this article shows two examples from South African Companies).

More on this tomorrow where I want to focus on the need for multiple small interventions within a monitoring framework as the way to start seeing the entanglement of culture as something that is a part of what it is, something that we should not reduce to single causal chains and engineering metaphors

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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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