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The evolution of culture

By Dave Snowden  ·  January 24, 2015  ·  Polemic

One of the tasks I have to complete over the next day or so is supporting material for a range of Cognitive Edge employee engagement tools and offerings.   For those familiar with Cognitive Edge methods and SenseMaker® as a tool there will be nothing revolutionary, but we haven't put it all together in a single document before and that is my task.  In part it is also a chapter in the book and manifest as a white paper and/or a brochure over the next few days.  If anyone fancies doing some copywriting or giving it more of a marketing look and feel free to volunteer.  I'm going to work through some of the big themes and ideas here and the whole thing will come together next Thursday in Zurich when I will teach it as a whole for the first time.

Now the title of this post, and the brilliant Gaping Void cartoon should start to give you some sort of idea of what this is all about.  I want to start with the culture word and I'm deliberately using lower case and linking with the idea of an evolutionary not an engineering process.  It is also distressingly common for people to see culture as a thing and I've even seen web sites that propose using on line surveys with explicit questions to carry out a stock take of culture.  That type of sloppy language can lead to yet another change initiative, based on the ideas that senior management can somehow or other determine what sort of stock they can keep on the warehouse shelves.  I also remain amazed at the way consultants discover things about culture which have been known in anthropology for years, but with a simply bit of renaming (normally accompanied by gross simplification) claim something hugely original. The latest example claims originality is discovering that unwritten rules and practices are domain in culture.

Now there is nothing new in the idea that the informal culture of an organisation is important. In Complex Acts of Knowing published in 2012 I referenced the distinction between ideation and rule based cultures that is common in anthropology.  I normally talk about the former as ​the way we do things around here that we can't really articulate but we all understand.   Now unwritten practices as a phrase might be a part of this but for a start they are unlikely to be expressed as rules, there are more likely to be heuristics or rules of thumb.  Most of the real research here says that they are unarticulated, expressed indirectly through narrative patterns and natural inhibitions on actions.   Also the idea that managers are not aware of this is naive, they know it exists they were and are a part of it.

So culture is a lot more nuanced that implied by the stock taking idea.  Ideation cultures are also constantly changing and vary by context, they can also undergo sudden phase shifts.   To repeat an earlier point, you can't do a stock take on something which is a constant complex flow, sometimes turbulent in nature.  Also attempting to determine what it should be, based on what it might have been when the stock take was made, is problematic to say the least.

So lets look at some key principles that should underly any attempt to change culture with a view to improving business outcome:

  1. Firstly culture is rarely changed by talking about how you want people to behave.  Actions speak louder that words.  So if you have a negative narrative about leadership then the question you ask is not What do you want it to be, but instead What things will you do that will make that narrative difficult to sustain.
  2. Small changes are both more resilient (less of a one time bet) and more sustainable than organisation wide initiatives.   You don't change culture by talking about it, or in the main by single actions, but my multiple small actions over time.
  3. In order to achieve all of that you need a continuous feedback system based on the day to day narrative of the organisation not those prompted by an explicit change programme.
  4. There is a need to recognise that something that would be unacceptable in one situation may be acceptable or even desirable in another.  Any model of change needs to recognise different situations and circumstances.
  5. The simplest and most easily understood way of achieving change is not by talking about what we should be, or by condemning specific behaviours as wrong per se.   It is  by asking people at all levels (not just managers), what can we do now that will create more stories like these and few stories like those.
  6. You work from the present, in different situations and contexts based on a sense of what direction you want to move in, but staying open to possibilities that might emerge as you undertake the journey.
  7. Ideally your feedback system, and your intervention mechanism is not a culture change initiative, but something that simply builds on day to day work and needs.  Initiatives allow employees to game their response and consultants encourage this.  It means they can claim success based on the canniness of a workforce that has learnt to repeat back what their leaders say they want to hear.

Just before Christmas I had the privilege to stay in Ken Blanchard's house in San Deigo and spending some time talking with him about his approach to situational leadership.  There is a lot in common between that work and complexity thinking so I found it doubly ironic that the Stock Take web site that triggered this post dismisses what is a properly researched approach.  The consultancy model seems to require a constant succession of new things, each of which replaces what came before without really changing the underlying assumptions.  Its the fad approach and while sheer novelty can produce short term success it is rarely sustained.   But of course that means the next fad, based on a yet another top down single causal model can be peddled.  We need longer, sustainable approaches based on action by all parties within (and without) the organisation,