Shaping Culture

Megan Taylor writes about culture, which we understand is the result of the conversations and interactions between people in and beyond an organisation

What is culture?

There are many different ways of understanding culture and many definitions, yet in fact, the whole notion of defining a culture can be unhelpful since it can lead us to think of culture as a ‘thing’ or a state that an organisation ‘owns’. At RISE we are aware that:

An organisation doesn’t have a culture - it is a culture.

Culture is the result of all the daily conversations and interactions between people in and beyond an organisation. How people decide what is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do something, and how they make sense of their experiences internally and externally. Culture is made up of what we experience, see; our perceptions, judgments and biases, what we say or don’t say - the language we use and our tone of voice and what we believe - our underlying assumptions.

The problem with ‘Culture Change’

There is a lot of talk around culture change being something you can plan, execute and complete. Yet this approach is inherently flawed: you probably can sense as well that culture change is happening all the time and never ends.

There are many models that are used by consultants to help people distinguish different types of culture and whilst these may be useful for framing they are a fairly mechanistic view of culture and culture change.

The traditional approach to culture change is to ask: Where are we going as an organisation? Where are we now as a culture? What are the gaps between where culture is now and where it  should be? What is our plan of action to get there? Hoping we can figure out the culture and how to change it.

This approach is based on 2 dubious assumptions:

  1. That there is a singular state the organisation is in and that it can shift to a different, more appropriate ‘state’.

  2. That we can make an organisation’s culture change and we can guarantee an outcome we wish for.

Whilst it would be nice and simple for this to be the case, the reality of human existence is much more complex and messy and unfortunately there is little evidence that this mechanistic, planned approach to culture change has any significant, sustainable, long term impact.

In actual fact, all people within an organisation live culture in an evolving state, it is not something fixed, or fixable. On top of that, we often hear leaders assert that ‘we need to change the culture’ where they are seeing it as something external to themselves. Yet this is not the case.

When it comes to culture, the way everyone and everything interacts is important.

Culture is not imposed from the outside,
but exposed from within.

So, what do you do?

Change the the way you and others understand culture

  • Instead of seeing culture as an immovable object that stops you achieving your organisational goals, recognise that culture is ‘the way we do things around here’

  • Shift the understanding of culture from something “out there that should be changed” into “we are all creating the culture by our everyday interactions with each other”.

Create shared context

  • Give everybody sense of agency to change the culture: get to know and rely on their internal motivations, their values, and invite them to create shared vision of a future culture which would motivate them to behave differently.

  • Be the change you want to see in the world: As soon as you raise expectations for a shift in culture, your own behaviour comes under increased scrutiny. Any perceptions of “do as I say not as I do’ will travel faster and be more vivid than the good stories of leaders embodying the desired way of working.

Shift the conversation

  • If you want to change culture you have to change the conversations that are happening at any one time in the organisation - or at least the majority of them. And changing conversations is the focus of our change programmes (unlike most others).

  • Remove barriers and open up channels of communication so that the system can self-organise to a place where change becomes possible.

  • Because it is impossible to predict cultural change with certainty, understanding some of the factors that influence the behaviour of a complex system such as culture can provide some insight toward guiding a change. Creating space for open conversation, feedback, reflection and insight might allow for adaptation based upon what’s working and what’s not so that a different culture can emerge.

Things are never this simple, of course. Once any real degree of change seems likely the organisation’s ‘immune system’ will start to resist the infection from new ideas and practices. Some people will try to reassert the power they feel they are losing; some will be cynical and mock the process; some will feel afraid and withdraw from the changes. This is where the leadership of an organisation have a significant role to play. They must act as an immunosuppressant, trying to damp down resistance and to nurture and encourage the new behaviours; this of course means leaders have to work hard to internalise and embody the culture they aspire.. Until a critical mass is achieved the change is very frail and can be easily destroyed.  

Warning: what we are suggesting is a very different way of working that it is hard for both clients and consultants. Most other consultants like to offer rational approaches to satisfy the clients’ need for certainty and assurance. We are not going to offer that.

Whilst we know it might take longer, and it doesn’t provide the safety of knowing, we have experienced many times that our approach is an effective way to engage with the messy reality of culture in most organisations and that it will create changes.  

So what does this mean for your organisation?

We would like to learn more about you to be able to discuss this question.

We are certainly not going to give you any advice from the table - as we understand that most culture change programmes are extremely context sensitive.

There are however, things that we know will be part of the journey:  It is important to create high trust contexts for people to speak openly and honestly about their experience, values, motivations and behaviours. It is important that the management of the organisation is able to display the same level of openness, engagement and dedication to the proposed changes as are asked from others.

Where are we coming from:

In our thinking about culture we are drawing on many authors and experienced managers. There is an overarching agreement visible among most: the current situation of increasing complexity requires that organisations adopt new cultures. The old cultures are visibly unable to cope with the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).

A short selection of texts that might give you some insight into current thinking about culture as complex phenomenon: