OMG, its culture change time

February 25, 2013

If in doubt, blame the culture seems to be a golden rule in consultancy and management alike.  And of course once blame has been allocated we end up with a visitation from the cultural change specialists with their tool kit of communication plans, key drivers, motivational posters, games and the like.  It's a form of aversion therapy  really, change now or we'll put you through a re-education programme.  So given that its refreshing to see Quentin Millington, one of the priesthood, express a degree of reservation about the whole idea.  Hat tip to Euan Semple for the link by the way as it inspired this posting but it's a pretty shallow article.

He starts by belittling the its the way we do things around here definition of culture by referencing the hopelessness of conventional attempts to change process.  Now I think this misses the point, and the definition is incomplete anyway.  A classic distinction in anthropology is between ideation and rule base cultures.  Something I referenced in one of the first Cynefin articles.  I'll quote from that article

Keesing and Strathern in Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective (1998) assert two very different ways in which the term culture is used:

  1. The socio-cultural system or the pattern of residence and resource exploitation that can be observed directly, documented and measured in a fairly straightforward manner.  The tools and other artefacts that we use to create communities, the virtual environment we create and the way we create, distribute and utilise assets within the community.  These are teaching cultures that are aware of the knowledge that needs to be transferred to the next generation and which create training programmes.  They are characterised by their certainty or explicit knowability
  2. Culture as an “…ideational system.  Cultures in this sense comprise systems of shared ideas, systems of concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the ways that humans live.  Culture, so defined, refers to what humans learn, not what they do and make”.   This is also the way in which humans provide “standards for deciding what is, … for deciding what can be,…. for deciding how one feels about it, … for deciding what to do about it, and … for deciding how to go about doing it.  Such cultures are tacit in nature: networked, tribal and fluid.  They are learning cultures because they are deal with ambiguity and uncertainty originating in the environment, or self generated for innovative purposes.

Millington does pick up on this with a reference to Schein's  third layer of culture: tacit assumptions, or the deeply entrenched patterns of thought and perception that drive behaviour. The group (here, a company, department or team) has learned these assumptions in the course of solving historical problems.  Now the implicit Jungian idea of layers is common to management consultants and concerns me – expect a wider post of causal layered analysis which will build on that concern with a general worry about post-structuralism.

Now while I think management consultants would learn more from anthropology and philosophy that from their own literature, the essence is the same.  Culture arises from actions in the world, ways of doing things which may never be articulated, and which may not be capable of articulation.  In effect culture is always complex, never complicated.  So it follows that cultural change is an evolutionary process from the present, not an idealised future state design.

So the most singularly stupid meaningless thing you can ever do is to define what culture you want.  At best it's a set of platitudes, at worst its a set of pious platitudes that trigger negative and hostile accusations of hypocrisy from your employees and customers alike.  Culture is an emergent property of interactions over time so the first and most important thing is to map your culture.   A lot of that is micro-narrative based and we will launch a standard version of SenseMaker® shortly: CultureSCAN.  This will map the present so one can see what can be changed easily and what will be more pragmatic.

Now there are some basic rules about what you do once you have the map.  Consider these a work in progress, but here are some:

  1. Actions speak louder than words.
    So if you have a negative pattern of stories go out and take actions that make those stories difficult or impossible to tell. Don't talk about how you want to change, or why things are really different.  Just act, do something, with purpose to create new stories and if you can succeed enforce quickly, if not disrupt.
  2. Constraints are key, manage them
    If you constrain that which cannot naturally be constrained then an informal culture of avoidance and work arounds will grow very very quickly, and invisibly.  Let the demons of sick stigma outside the highly ordered universe of core process to anything requiring human judgement and you are building a negative culture of the shadow where hidden inefficiency is building to the point where ultimately you get hit with catastrophic failure.  Relaxing and increasing constraints is one of the main tools of cultural change and its a dynamic one, based on managing in the present not to some idealised future.
  3. Manage interactions and connections
    Who and what we interact with at a local level has a profound influence on what stories we tell and how we make decisions and assess situations.  So if you want to change the culture, change the connections.  Social Network Stimulation is one of the most important methods I ever created for doing this and it can transform culture both by action and by achieving a network density which solves problems without the need for explicit definition.

Now there are other principles that should be in play.  Obliquity is key, its better to deal with culture by focusing on a different problem.  Thinking back to the 1970s there were two approaches to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland that I had some association with.  The first got people together to talk about the problem, the second took people from both communities and sent them to work together in the slums of Latin America.   The action based, oblique approach was more effective.   Too many consultants see cultural change as a therapeutic need and of course they want to be the therapist.

Indicators, such as archetypes are also powerful tools.  I wrote some of that up in an E:CO column many years ago.  IBM in Germany made emoticons of their archetypes so they could be dropped into virtual chats to make an indirect point.  nbsp;Very powerful as the ability to criticise with humour is key to change.  

The map should also be the monitoring and action planning system.  If  you map the narrative using SenseMaker® then its possible to go to all parts of the organisation and ask the question: How so we get people to tell more stories like this, and fewer stories like these?  That question can be communicated at all education and hierarchical levels.  It speaks to the reality of culture, not the artificial, idealised wouldn't it be nice strategy of most cultural change consultancy practice.


I got the opening picture from this site by the way.  I really hope they meant it ironically but ….

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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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