Is Cultural Change really that controllable?

Culture Change

by Kevin Power

30 April, 2019

We have been working in and around organisations long enough to have noticed a cyclical obsession with changing culture as a panacea for transformation and renewal. But is it helpful to describe this kind of change as if it is something we can master by applying some kind of cause and effect approach?

Mastering what is elusive

It is often the context for what I do in my work and yet I still hesitate to call myself an expert in something that is so elusive and therefore unmanageable. The subject demands humility yet it doesn’t stop us from thinking that we can somehow shape and control it.

Amongst the myriad of definitions you can find about organisational culture you will often discover terms that refer to patterns of human interaction such as behavioural norms, narratives, rituals and the significance of relationships. Then there are contextual factors such as symbols, artefacts and the aesthetics of the working environment Whatever aspects we have in mind it has consequences for how we think about cultural change as well as the actions that stem from these assumptions.

What is also interesting is that the etymology of the word has Latin and French origins and has evolved from an agricultural metaphor – the cultivation of land and crops from the early Middle Ages. So it does imply the notion of ‘controlled change’ as a base metaphor especially when you examine how it came to be used in philosophical thought through the ages:

“All the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism and, through artifice, become fully human” (Samuel von Pufendorf, 1632-94).

This way of thinking continued to evolve through to the last century, especially with the emergence of the social sciences, where the gaze turned to communities and tribes in different geographical contexts. As anthropologists in particular became more aware of their ethical responsibilities, they became less interested in any notions of cultivation and more on learning from their observations and insights about social systems of people. Hence the less goal-orientated idea of a noun called ‘culture’ where we were becoming more interested in what is rather than what should be.

The Petri Dish of Life

In a recent conversation with a client – who had a background in biochemistry and now works in social policy – she made an intriguing statement: “ I prefer researching and thinking about what people are doing in their lives rather than staring into a petri dish”. It reminded me that the ‘cultivation’ metaphor is alive and well in the world of microbes: the ‘cultures’ that are created and observed under the lens of a microscope.

Our conversation turned to whether we as leaders or change agents see ourselves as standing outside of culture looking in or whether we are actually swimming in the petri dish whilst imagining that we have access to the eye piece of the microscope.  And so we came to the fundamental difficulty of definition and our ability to influence something that is not within our grasp. We cannot ‘see’ something with neutral, objective clarity when our own lenses are distorted by our hypotheses and by our need to control and categorise. For example, how can you analyse and explain something when you are part of the very same phenomenon you are trying to pin down.

Or put another way, there is an old saying which we think comes from an old Chinese proverb and goes something like this: “if you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.”

And to bend the fish metaphor in another direction, culture is therefore a very slippery eel indeed!

So where does this leave us in our roles as change agents and leaders?

Hopefully not in a helpless place if we can hold our pragmatist and idealistic urges in check. As long as we have the capacity and the willingness to pay attention to our assumptions and are clear which lens we are seeing the world of culture through then we do think you can have some influence. What if we were to start with the following principles:

1. Organisational cultures are always in flux. They are constantly in a state of co-creation – a bit like very complex, self-modulating systems.

2. We participate (swim?) in these modulation processes and this contributes to what we experience as cultural patterns such as norms of behaviour.

3. These patterns are only one manifestation of a cultural eco-system. Indeed you could argue that all organisational activity and symbols are expressions of culture in one form or another.

4. Neither system nor pattern has boundaries. They are non-linear by nature.

5. Culture has no fixed configuration just changing contexts. It might even be better to talk of culture as a verb rather than a noun.

In a nutshell it means we are dealing here with something that is always emergent and somewhat paradoxical. So if you think of a typical cultural issue in organisational life – where it gets expressed as “we need to be more (or less) of something”- our instinct usually is to find a change solution that involves some form of control thinking. This is not a surprise because this in itself is a typical cultural pattern in many organisations and in life generally. It’s a bit like the challenge of overcoming an addictive pattern of behaviour. Our experience suggests that the first step to ‘recovery’ is accepting first that we are not in control of something that is a pattern of contexts and relationships.

Rich Descriptions

It follows then, if we feel some responsibility for creating change, we might have to let go of our conventional thinking in this area. We would suggest then that there are more congruent approaches that can create a gentler but more impactful ‘disturbance’ than any grand design or intervention.

There is no one truth that can encapsulate or describe all contexts. So in our client work we apply a liberal dose of science and an equal measure of art. It means that we have to be rigorous in our methods as we help our clients to pay serious attention to what they each experience in their organisational lives. We act like anthropologists in that we help them to build a rich description of these cultural experiences through a discovery and immersion process. This then enables them to reveal and express those patterns that they wish to amplify and those that they wish to dampen. How and when they do this becomes the basis for a next phase of support. We will come back to how that works in reality later but for our next blog we will talk more about some of the methods we use during the initial discovery phase.

For those who wish a deeper dive into some of the ideas expressed above we would strongly recommend the work of Gregory Bateson, Adrian McLean, Clifford Geertz and John Berger.


Is Cultural Change really that controllable?

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