latest thinking: understanding cultural change

Cul­ture has been and is still one of the hottest top­ics in the cur­rent dis­cus­sion about lead­er­ship and change. For many top lead­ers in cor­po­ra­tions but also in the pub­lic and the non-prof­it sec­tor, cul­tur­al change seems to be the gold­en key to achieve the ulti­mate goal of the organ­i­sa­tion, be it mak­ing loads of mon­ey for the share­hold­ers, to deliv­er a func­tion­ing pub­lic health sys­tem or to pro­vide poor chil­dren with a bet­ter life. How­ev­er, when those ambi­tious lead­ers — and the con­sul­tants that sup­port them — them talk about the cul­tur­al change they envi­sion, they usu­al­ly refer to col­lec­tive behav­iours and atti­tudes they want to change:

We want out peo­ple to be busi­ness ori­ent­ed and risk tak­ing.

Our organ­i­sa­tion needs to be more agile.

We need to break the silos.

There have been some his­tor­i­cal attempts to trans­form cul­ture of the entire organ­i­sa­tion. This has main­ly be the case when pub­lic util­i­ties such as tele­coms or pub­lic trans­port sys­tems were pri­va­tised. I don’t know a sin­gle case in which this cul­tur­al change hap­pened in less than ten years. In most of those organ­i­sa­tions which have been giv­en into the hands of pri­vate share­hold­ers twen­ty to thir­ty years ago you can still find cul­tur­al relics that can be traced back to the foun­da­tion of those com­pa­nies, which usu­al­ly dates back to the late 19th or ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

Here is an attempt to under­stand what organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture is, how it devel­ops and how it can be changed. Before we go deep­er into that, we need to under­stand that soci­ol­o­gy, anthro­pol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy and the­o­ry of the arts all have dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of what cul­ture means. Actu­al­ly, the ori­gin came from agri­cul­ture and it was Cicero who trans­ferred the con­cept behind the word to describe the high­est pos­si­ble ide­al for human devel­op­ment.

The essence of organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture has been described by Edgar Schein, John Kot­ter and many oth­ers. Here are my five cents:

Organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture is formed by deeply held col­lec­tive beliefs in an organ­i­sa­tion on how things are done, and it is expressed through behav­iour­al pat­terns of indi­vid­u­als, teams and the entire organ­i­sa­tion.

Sim­pli­fied, there are three main aspects that con­tribute to the devel­op­ment of an organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture:

Soci­ety. Any organ­i­sa­tion is embed­ded in a soci­ety which has its own spe­cif­ic cul­ture. Even in the most glob­al and inter­na­tion­al com­pa­nies, one will find strong traces of the orig­i­nal nation­al cul­ture. Some­times more than one. Deutsche Post DHL is a con­glom­er­ate of what the name says: the Deutsche Post which is still thor­ough­ly Ger­man (what ever attrib­ut­es you might relate to that) and the mytho­log­i­cal Amer­i­can couri­er ser­vice once found­ed by Adri­an Dalsey, Lar­ry Hill­blom and Robert Lynn. Even 15 years after the merg­er, the two sub-cul­tures are very much alive side by side.

How­ev­er, soci­ety has a much big­ger influ­ence on the cul­ture of an organ­i­sa­tion in the sense that gen­er­a­tional shifts, and changes in val­ues, behav­iours and atti­tudes have an impact on how cor­po­rate cul­tures change. No won­der that many com­pa­nies have become green in soci­eties which val­ue the pro­tec­tion of the envi­ron­ment.

The Founder’s Myth. In organ­i­sa­tions that were found­ed by an indi­vid­ual or a small group you can find a strong DNA. And we know that DNA is dif­fi­cult to change. Nature shows that even many muta­tions go unno­ticed. A well known exam­ple is HP — the mytho­log­i­cal garage of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard can still be found on the company’s web­site. Car­ly Fio­r­i­na who tried to change the com­pa­ny cul­ture got quite a bloody nose dur­ing her attempt.

The Guild’s Laws. The cul­ture of a clas­si­cal engi­neer­ing com­pa­ny is dif­fer­ent from  that of a cre­ative agency and that again dif­fers from a munic­i­pal police ser­vice. There are cer­tain ways of “how things are done” in a sec­tor and while com­peti­tors might dif­fer in spe­cif­ic approach­es, there are often more sim­i­lar­i­ties than dif­fer­ences. That is one rea­son why Sil­i­con Val­ley is so suc­cess­ful — most of the com­pa­nies over there share a lot of cul­tur­al traits which makes it easy for peo­ple to inte­grate smooth­ly into their new com­pa­ny after a job swap.

As I have said before, an organ­i­sa­tion­al cul­ture can be assessed by observ­ing it’s expres­sions — people’s and group’s behav­iours. Because they are a result of cul­ture, pure behav­iour­al train­ing of employ­ees is often not sus­tain­able in sup­port­ing cul­tur­al change. As Robert Dilts has described more than 20 years ago in his fun­da­men­tal log­i­cal lev­el mod­el, sus­tain­able change hap­pens at the iden­ti­ty and belief lev­els which then lead to new behav­iours.

There are four aspects which are both expres­sions but like­wise deter­mi­nants of cul­ture. That means they change when cul­ture changes but they can also be changed inten­tion­al­ly in an effort for trans­for­ma­tion — they are close to the belief and the iden­ti­ty lev­els. What makes it dif­fi­cult to describe them is that are intrin­sic and large­ly embed­ded in the col­lec­tive uncon­scious mind. The more sys­temic the changes of those deter­mi­nants are, the high­er the chance that a change ini­tia­tive is suc­cess­ful.

Sym­bols and rit­u­als. Com­pa­nies know that their logos, their archi­tec­ture, the way their CEOs address employ­ees or share­hold­ers, the attire, lay­outs of offices and many oth­er sym­bols and rit­u­als have an impact on how employ­ees, cus­tomers and the gen­er­al pub­lic per­ceives the organ­i­sa­tion. They might express trust, effi­cien­cy, human­i­ty, inno­va­tion, etc. They appear in sto­ries and myths.

Rela­tions. The way employ­ees of an organ­i­sa­tion relate to each oth­er is anoth­er deter­mi­nant and an expres­sion of cul­ture. The trend towards lean­er hier­ar­chies has an eco­nom­ic as well as a cul­tur­al aspect. We expect that an organ­i­sa­tion becomes more agile with less bound­aries between man­age­ment lev­els, and with more dis­trib­uted deci­sion pow­er.

Lan­guage pat­terns. We know from cog­ni­tive sci­ence that lan­guage cre­ates real­i­ty. How employ­ees talk about their organ­i­sa­tion tells a lot about the cul­ture but also influ­ences it. Lan­guage is also a big dif­fer­en­tia­tor of sub-cul­tures in an organ­i­sa­tion. The engi­neer­ing depart­ment has a dif­fer­ent lan­guage than HR.

The lev­el of cyn­i­cism expressed open­ly is often a good indi­ca­tor for the gen­er­al mood. Go into an organ­i­sa­tion and hear peo­ple say that it is a tread mill or a tor­ture cham­ber — and the organ­i­sa­tion will be a tor­ture cham­ber. The mas­sive invest­ment of some com­pa­nies in con­ver­sa­tion skills also depicts the impor­tance of lan­guage for cor­po­rate cul­ture.

Val­ues. Val­ue-based man­age­ment has become an impor­tant tool for organ­i­sa­tion­al devel­op­ment. All major com­pa­ny have spent big efforts in iden­ti­fy­ing the under­ly­ing val­ues, redefin­ing them, pub­lish­ing them and mak­ing sure that their man­ag­er and employ­ees adhere to those. The top­ic of val­ues deserves a sep­a­rate blog post which I announce here­with.

Sum­ma­ry: Cul­tur­al change in organ­i­sa­tions takes time and effort. Relics of the orig­i­nal DNA which comes from the founder’s ambi­tions or from the gen­er­al behav­iour­al stan­dards of the spe­cif­ic indus­try sec­tor will always be found and are hard to over­come. Organ­i­sa­tions which want to be suc­cess­ful in trans­form­ing their cul­ture need to address sym­bols and rit­u­als, rela­tions, lan­guage pat­terns and val­ues.