What I believe to be true about organisational culture

A client asked me to write down some thoughts about a complexity based approach to culture.  I thought I’d go ahead and publish some of my initial thoughts here as well. (I’ve woven together my own ideas with those of Dave Snowden & Dr Chene Swart – so much credit to them!)

Thinking about culture from a complexity and narrative perspective.

Our view of culture is founded on the belief that an organisation is a complex adaptive system that is more like an ecosystem than a machine (or even an organism).  We therefore see culture as something that emerges over time from the thousands of small interactions that occur between the people, processes, systems and stories in the system.

There are some basic beliefs we hold about culture in organisations that are based on solid evidence and science, but  that flies in the face of most mainstream beliefs and methods.

  1. Culture is emergent and evolutionary, it’s cannot be engineered

The first and often most contentious of these is that you can’t engineer culture or as Dave Snowden says “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 reality, culture emerges and evolves. When we think about the culture of a society or country, it is easy to see it’s evolutionary nature, yet in organisations we are prone to thinking that we can design and engineer an ideal culture and instill associated behaviours. This often leaves us with a cynical organisation that resists or ignores our culture interventions as they’ve seen too many of these initiatives never come to fruition.

To be clear, we are not saying that culture cannot be influenced to evolve in a certain direction. Having a clear understanding of where we currently are and what the cultural narratives and practices are that no longer serve us or keep us stuck is vitally important. We are also able to determine the direction we need the system to evolve towards and define ways to nudge and influence it. We simply do not attempt to force a rigid design and fixed outcome onto a naturally evolutionary process.

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. We need methods or tools that have greater authenticity to the reality of the evolutionary nature of cultural change, a process that is most effectively achieved by small actions in the present.” – Dave Snowden

  1. We need a requisite diversity in our culture in order to be resilient

In many organisations the word “sub-culture” has become much like a swear word. The reality is that there has always been, and there will always be sub cultures in any organisation. Just like we cannot expect all the citizens in a country to have the exact same culture and behaviour, the same is true in an organisation. In fact, if we were ever to achieve one single culture we would have effectively destroyed our organisation’s adaptive capacity and resilience. This does not mean however that everyone can do what they want, pulling in different directions with no coherence. We believe that on an organizational level, there needs to be an alignment to a single over-arching narrative, purpose and values. Within this alignment though, one needs to allow for (and celebrate) the uniqueness of each of the various cultures. One cannot expect an IT department to have the exact same culture as the marketing department or Call Center. It is not a realistic expectation, and attempting to enforce a single culture onto a diverse organisation will simply force the sub-cultures underground and lead to camouflage behaviour. As stated previously, another unintended consequence of an over focus on creating homogeneity in the culture is a loss of resilience. If we all see the world exactly the same, when the context around us shifts none of us are able to survive.

  1. To understand culture we need to understand the stories people tell: Stories create culture, and culture creates stories

The Narrative approach starts with the idea that a word opens a world. How we speak and the stories we tell shape and maintain who we are as individuals, communities and organisations. Because cultural realities are organised and maintained through narratives, organisational culture is seen as the treasure chest of collective and competing narratives that are told by everyone, both inside and outside of the organisation. These narratives can go way beyond the strategic plans and visionary objectives that you find hanging in the reception area of the company. Organisational narratives are lived and told in the kitchen, just after meetings in the hallway, at family gatherings etc.” – Chene Swart

To build, change and transform the culture of an organisation requires an awareness and understanding of: the power of the storying capacity of leaders and the work-community, the power of language in the creation of culture, the influence of power in the telling of preferred organisational culture narratives and the importance of leadership and relationships that carry these narratives. The Narrative understanding proposes culture transformation and culture building as the shift from competing narratives towards a convergence into a common richly described and owned narrative that is co-constructed and re-authored by leaders and their teams.

The Narrative approach invites organisations into the possibility of Re-authoring organisational narratives in ways that speak to and of their collective preferred future.

We therefore start our cultural interventions by seeking to understand the existing culture as defined by the day-to-day stories of work and play as told by those in power, as well as those lower down in the organisation. Once we have this narrative mapping of the existing culture, we can look for areas where there is evolutionary potential. Often we find that beneficial cultural patterns already exist and simply need amplification. We therefore design small actions to amplify positive stories (more stories like this) and dampen negative stories (fewer stories like those) to start shifting the culture in a real and sustainable way. If we continue gathering stories from the organisation while we are intervening we are also able to monitor the effectiveness of our interventions in real-time and in a way that is not easily gamed. The only way to change the stories people tell is to actually change their environment or the interactions we have with them.

  1. Traditional culture surveys are often problematic

One of the problems with cultural surveys in organisations is that they tend to be evaluative in nature.   The same issue applies to 360 feedback, employee satisfaction surveys and the like.  With the best of intentions they want to know what people think about the organisation.  The problem is that evaluation closes down options and also can create stress or gaming behaviour.  

In addition the process of evaluation is itself problematic as it focuses people on a single act of judgment with a single focus.   That moves away from the day-to-day micro narratives that describe the total experience of the respondent.   We don’t live our lives in neat silos of hypothesis based surveys; we live the day to day experiences of social encounters, infused with multiple experiences, hopes and dreams that are not directly engaged with work, but which we cannot leave at the security card swipe in of the modern workplace.” – Dave Snowden

When we ask people for an opinion or evaluation, there is a certain amount of value in that, but one seldom gets immediately actionable insights. What is much more valuable and immediately actionable, is finding and understanding the stories they’ve heard or experiences they’ve had that caused them to hold that opinion in the first place.

Another problem with traditional culture surveys and instruments is the separation of diagnosis and intervention. In any complex system, the system changes the moment you look at it.   Conducting a survey that only renders results 6 months later is often a big waste of time and effort as the culture has probably already shifted by the time the results are in. In any complex system, and diagnosis and intervention cannot be separated. We therefore seek to understand and transform at the same time.

These are just a few initial thoughts, there are many more.  If you’d like to know more I suggest you read the series of blog posts that Dave recently published, starting with this one.

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2 thoughts on “What I believe to be true about organisational culture

  1. would love to go deeper … needs the concept, probably seen as a reality later in this century, of collective consciousness .. with this will come an understanding about what culture is, and how to change it

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