Penultimate: forget cultural change

December 30, 2010

Yesterday I argued that compatible but different cultures had more resilient than a “common culture”. Having tackled one of the shibboleths of OD and HR practice I thought I would move onto another namely cultural change. Of course the two ideas are linked and are all part of the idealism that characterises far too much management practice. You know how it runs, a group of senior executives go off site with some expensive management consultants. They assemble a set of platitudes that they think describe an idea future state they attempt to engineer that situation.

belief systems and myths cannot be engineered.

In my time I have seen everything from nonsense posters to tents. Posters most people will understand but tents may not be familiar. I should say now that its not my story, but my sisters. She was working for a telecoms country who acquired one of those CEOs on a mission. He erected a tent near Birmingham and all staff were encouraged to go to all day sessions to inculcate them with the new culture. The sessions were all day with no breaks, large numbers of people in an evangelical format. Full time change people were exept from real work so that they would be free to herd up the doubters. As I remember it my sister was one of only 2/3 who were holding out before (fortunately) the CEO was fired.

Now I know thats extreme, but to be honest indoctrination and brain-washing is probably the only way you can change a culture on a planned basis, and if the only way to make something is immoral then its best avoided. Far better to evolve than engineer when it comes to culture. Find ways to represent the divergent cultures of your organisation in a meaningful way. SenseMaker® is one easy way to do that by the way. Then identify areas that seem counter productive, areas that offer interesting possibilities and carry out a series of safe-fail experiments to see if you can shift things. If something works amplify it, if i fails kill it, but learn from it.

Also start to look for useful differences, ritualised dividing lines between different cultures. Don’t try and destroy them, but instead start ot see if giving people security within their group culture makes them more able to work with people with a different way of doing things. Trying to engineer change will create insecurity and defensiveness. the best you can hope for is that people will learn to say the right things, and in front of witnesses appear to do the right things. Real change evolves,; people are not machines and their underlying

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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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