Narratives of culture: overture

February 21, 2015

There are some basic truths about culture in organisations that are pretty self-evident to anyone prepared to engage with either theory or practice.  The first and most basic of those is that you can’t engineer it or for that matter define it as a set of desirable qualities, values or any other loose collection of platitudes.  In many ways the cultural engineering approaches that typify many a consultancy method have simply responded to the wider engineering metaphor that requires pre-defined outcomes.  In practice movements and ideas have a habit of creeping up onpeople, practice and principles with little regard for evidence or effectiveness.  So blaming the HR function, or for that matter the consultants is both unfair and unhelpful.

However all movements have their day, and when the shift happens what matters is to seize the day and try and get a method or tool or two that have greater authenticity to the reality of cultural change, namely it is an evolutionary process that is most effectively achieved by small actions in the present.  Grand visions of the future and massive engineering programmes simply drive authentic behaviour underground and enable lip service to declared values.  Nothing is without some effect, but the ineffectual is often too easily disguised to satisfy the stated needs of those in power.

One of the ways to do this is to seek to understand culture as defined by the day to day stories of work and play and then by, in the main small, actions (I can’t over emphasis the word) see if those stories shift or change into a more desirable form.  I’m leaving aside for the moment the question of whether those in power have the right to even seek some changes as I think that question is academic in the worst sense of the word.   The day to day reality is that they will and do so you either withdraw or you engage.  I choose the latter.

So next week we will launch a low cost (even lower if you get in early) cultural mapping tool (possibly two) that organisations can use.   The tool is designed to allow people to see the overall pattern of culture and then take small actions in the here and now and see if those achieve change.   Downstream (within weeks) this will develop into a new tool for recruitment screening that moves beyond the nonsense of algorithms sorting CVs (the throw them on the stairs and see where they land is more progressive.

So for the next few days I am going to be posting on aspects of culture linked to that narrative mapping.


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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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