What is culture?

We are always engaged in a process of relating to others. The sociologist Norbert Elias observed that we live in patterns of interdependence that enable and constrain how each of us act. It is the social patterns that are created and maintained as people interact together than we tend to think of as ‘culture’. The  anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, evocatively observed that these social patterns create webs of meaning in which we are suspended. Implicit to the webs of meaning are tacit taken-for-granted-assumptions and beliefs which function as models for:

How we see the world and how we act in it
What we value, care about and see as important (and what we do not)
How we interpret others’ behaviour and decisions; and
How we relate to and interact with others and objects.

Culture is a ‘grand narrative’ that we are all creating and maintaining that gives order to organisational life and helps us to make sense of our shared experiences. Without some cultural anchors for collective meaning social and organizational life would be impossible. Culture therefore is the ground for our perceptions, experience and behaviour.

Most of the time, our participation in maintaining cultural patterns  is outside of our awareness. We simply do not notice how we assume meanings and enable or constrain the behaviour of others.

Culture – a symbolic process

Geertz thought that ‘patterns of meaning’ are created, transmitted and maintained through symbols. A symbol is anything that signifies meaning in a given social context (Geertz, 1973). A red flag is a symbol of danger on a beach, a white one surrender on a battle field. Symbols take many different forms including language, objects, rituals and the interactions between individuals. By means of symbols we create an image of an ordered world which will account for the ambiguities, puzzles and paradoxes of in our lives. This capacity to understand the world symbolically and to understand others symbolically is what makes human action distinctive. The gestures we make have the potential to bear meaning to people.

High and Low profile symbols

Adrian McLean, in his insightful book Leadership and Cultural Webs in Organisations, makes the distinction between high and low profile symbols. High profile symbols are the carefully crafted, grand gestures that are intended to convey a particular meaning. They include speeches, mission statements, logos, codes of conduct, formal artefacts (buildings, furnishing and fabric), etc. In contrast, low profile symbols are the spontaneous, mundane, unrehearsed, everyday actions and statements. The seemingly insignificant acts and utterances convey powerful messages about what and who is important, valued and significant in a given social context. We are more influenced by low profile symbols than high profile symbols, particularly when there is an incongruence between the two. This is reflected in the old adage “Do as I say not as I do”.

Most of the organisational literature reifies culture and talks about it ‘as if’ it is separate and independent of the organisation. Rather than being something an organisation has we need to think of organisations as being cultures. It other words something an organisation is, and that we are all perpetually creating and maintaining in our everyday interactions!

A deliberate and planned approach to changing culture?

Cultures are not static and change every moment of every day. They can also change through deliberate and conscious acts of collective endeavour. Although precisely how they will change and in what way is an emergent process that unfolds as people consciously attend to cultural patterns.

Over the years, we have crafted a methodology for culture change that is based on anthropology, ethnography and depth psychology. The intention of the methodology is to describe and interpret cultural patterns and make conscious and deliberate attempts to disturb and change them.

Step 1: Framing an intent and establishing the necessary conditions for change

All collective endeavours require an act of leadership to mobilise people to engage with the process of change. Leadership is itself a symbolic act and the starting point for any change effort needs to be a gesture on the part of a leader or a group of leaders to initiate a process of change. This act needs to have meaning within a given culture, be credible and to frame the intent of any change effort such that people understand and accept that an aspect of the culture needs to change.

Step 2: Discovery and deepening understanding of cultural patterns

Start with immersion & Inquiry

Most of us are unaware of how we act to perpetuate and maintain existing cultural patterns through low profile symbols. The necessary starting point for cultural change therefore is a process of collective discovery and shared sense making. We work with representatives of the culture to undertake ethnographic fieldwork and inquiry into the culture of the organization. Together we immerse ourselves in the culture of the organization to gather observations and others accounts of cultural phenomena, such as:

Rituals and customs
Status gestures
Myths and Folklore
Cultural breaches and transgressions

Representation & Thick Description of cultural patterns

The challenge in cultural change work is to develop a shared representation and understanding of the critical cultural patterns that influence the issue or challenge that the organization wants to address. We do this by inviting small groups of inquirers to share stories and observations, to surface underlying assumptions and to pictorially represent what they are discovering. To engage a critical mass of people large groups events and social media can be used to involve them in a process of sense making.

As cultural patterns start to be described, their implications for the organisation start to become apparent to those involved. Most patterns exist because they served some purpose in the past and to some degree in the present. They also have significant consequences for the performance of the organisation which only fully surface as the pattern is described.

Step 3: Developing cultural experiments & creating social movements

As cultural patterns are uncovered and understood, groups of employees are encouraged to design and lead micro experiments that are intended to disturb and interrupt existing cultural patterns.  Such experiments do not require the direct involvement of leaders in the organisation.  They do however require their sponsorship and sanction.  Each group is tasked with encouraging grassroots involvement and participation in the experiment and to seek leadership support where they feel it is required.

The intention of these experiments is not to directly bring about change but to create disturbances that start to bring cultural patterns into awareness for a wider population.  Experiments are symbolic gestures that invite different, non-typical responses from people. Many of these experiments tend not to work, and the ones that do, often do not work in the manner that was intended.  What they do achieve however is a great understanding of the culture and how to bring about change.

This phase of a process of change tends to evoke feelings of confusion, anxiety and frustration as people start to question theirs and others’ assumptions and behaviour.  Taken-for-granted ways of working become questioned which can be both exciting and anxiety provoking.

Step 4: Reviewing, noticing and amplifying emergent patterns

As a culture change process unfolds, we bring groups of individuals together with representatives from the organisation’s leadership to review the impact of the cultural experiments.  Again this involves a process of discovery and awareness raising.  As new, emergent patterns of behaviour are noticed they can be encouraged, supported and reinforced.  This process helps to amplify new patterns and the role of leadership is to cultivate their adoption.

The basic intent of this process is to support change from within the culture rather than to act to push change from the outside.  The later invariably results in ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

Please get in contact if you would like to explore how we might be able to help your organisation.


As the pressure on organisations to change increases, many are turning to internal change agents to lead change initiatives and engage employees in the change process.

Internal change agents often come from a range of specialist departments, such as OD, Organisation Effectiveness or Quality Improvement – or support functions, such as HR.  However, we often hear from these individuals that they feel like a ‘prophet in one’s own land’. No matter what their levels of expertise or experience, they feel they are not listened to or taken seriously. This is despite some of the clear advantages that internals have over externals, such as their understanding of the organisation, its culture and what has been tried and not worked in the past.

Over the years, we have worked closely with internals to develop their expertise and help them to influence how change happens in their organization. We have also published research as to how they influence change and establish credibility. Our fundamental, and most basic, observation is that internals who are able to influence change and enable something different to happen have earned a ‘license to operate’. They do this by establishing trust and credibility with influential individuals and groups in their organisations. As a result, they are valued for their expertise and insight and people listen to them.

The top tips we would offer internal change agents who want to develop their credibility and influence are:

1. Start by working with the ‘early adopters’ or those individuals who are willing to try something different and believe that change needs to be approached in a different way.

2. Work below the radar until a change starts to take off and then encourage those involved to share positive stories and successes. This inevitably starts to attract attention from others who then become curious about what is happening.

3. Find those issues that people really care about and want to work on together to improve their lives and their products or services. Too often internals can pursue changes or ideals that they believe should happen but others do not care about.

4. Focus on small but significant projects and make them a success. In contrast to conventional wisdom, large scale change is rarely brought about through grand visions and plans. Often small and symbolic changes trigger others to act and change starts to spread like a virus rather than as a result of a ‘grand plan’.

5. Many years ago, the renowned OD practitioner, Roger Harrison, advised internal consultants to work with the forces that are supportive of change, rather than against defensiveness and resistance. Equally, he advised internals to work with the relatively healthy parts of the organisation and avoid ‘lost causes’. Effective internal change agents in our experience from the beginning focus on where they see potential to make a difference.

6. Find and develop sponsorship at senior levels of the organisation. Contrary to what is widely advocated by many change practitioners, active sponsorship is not necessary for all change initiatives. The minimum level that is required is permission for changes to be initiated. The next level, which is more desirable, is support and encouragement for change. Ideally, senior leaders would actively participate. However, this is not always necessary and change agents often push too hard against the resistance of senior individuals to getting involved.

7. Work with leaders and sponsors to mobilise a ‘critical mass’ of activists for each change project from across all parts and levels of the organisation. These are the individuals who are going to act, role model change and challenge others to change.

8. Work collaboratively with other functions, such as HR, comms and strategy, to develop their capability and develop supporters and allies. Equally, avoid creating enemies and adversaries who feel threatened by your existence. This requires a sensitivity to tribal politics and territorial boundaries.

9. Act as a connector. Use your knowledge and networks to connect individuals and change projects from across the organisation. Putting individuals in contact with others not only helps change happen but it also builds your credibility as a networker and someone who can see systemic connections and opportunities.

10. Be pragmatic and flexible. Beware of trying to follow a set methodology because this is how things ‘should’ happen. In the real world, change is messy and improvised. In our research, those individuals who had credibility were prepared to roll up their sleeves and get involved. They pushed the boundaries as far as they believed was possible and challenged when they believed they would be heard.

In summary, effective change agents influence through their relationships, expertise and ability to help rather than through formal authority and control. This requires them to be trusted and to have credibility in their organisations.

On first appearance, the following do not appear to have much in common:

Emergence – order out of chaos

Emergence is often referred to as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Many interactions at a local level gives rise spontaneously to a system wide pattern that gives the system itself a form of order. In other words, order emerges out of chaos. Order and disorder paradoxically co-exist. The patterns that emerge provide order to the system and yet at the same time unpredictable or novel behaviour can be observed. If we observe our flock of Starlings we can see that each bird is coordinating its movements in response to the birds that are closest to it however if we observe the flock we can see that patterns emerge and disappear as the flock moves back and forth across the sky but the overall characteristics of the flock is recognisable.

Self-organising behaviour

A complex system is characterised by non-linear dynamics. In a linear system the more or less of one variable will result in a proportional change in another. So if we press our foot down on the accelerator our car goes faster. In a non-linear system this is not the case. Small changes can have large effects and large changes can have no effect. This is the famous ‘Butterfly Effect’.

Non-linear systems are characterised by positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback loops amplify a behaviour within the system; whilst negative feedback dampens a behaviour. In a complex system, patterns act back on the agents themselves to affect local interactions and yet at the same time local interactions are altering the system wide patterns. There is therefore a complex interplay between the macro patterns of the system and the micro moment by moment interactions between agents.

Self-organising dynamics can be observed if we examine the stock market. The market consists of large numbers of traders who are regulating each others’ behaviour through their interactions at a local level through their buying and selling activities. In each trade the seller and buyer receive immediate feedback from each other about the price of their commodity. Each individual trade contributes to the dynamics of the market as a whole. The pattern of the market can shift abruptly when positive feedback loops encourage the selling or buying of shares in particularly directions. The fall and the rise of the market emerges out of the local level behaviour of all the actors in the market as they attempt to anticipate changes in the pattern of the market.

The dynamics of a complex system are therefore self-organising meaning that local interactions produce order and that order is not imposed from outside of the system. Control is therefore distributed across the system and no single person or entity is in control. Order cannot be designed into a complex system.

A few simple rules can generate complex patterns

The study of complex systems reveals that a few simple rules can generate complex patterns of behaviour. If we study a crowd moving through Victoria Station at ‘rush hour’ we are likely to observe that people are taking the least congested path they can see towards where they wish to go whilst trying to avoid bumping into the people coming towards them. People mutually regulate each others’ speed so we tend not to see people running and we do not tend to observe people pushing each other out of the way. We can think of everyone simultaneously collaborating and competing with each other as they try to get through the station as quickly and safely as possible. If we stood at one of the vantage points in the station and looked down, then we would observe flows of people moving through the station concourse and as bottlenecks emerged people changing the direction of travel to avoid the busier spaces.

Capacity to adapt

The agents in a complex adaptive system demonstrate the capacity to learn and to adapt their behaviour in response to the behaviour of other agents. In the Stock Market if the market starts to fall then this will influence the behaviour of each agent. If I find that Victoria Station is becoming more and more congested, I may change my route and go via a different station. The agents in a system can therefore change the rules they are choosing to follow. The capacity of each agent to adjust their behaviour gives the system adaptive capacity meaning that complex systems can evolve in response to environmental changes. If we take the case of the car industry as the price of fuel increases and society gets more concerned about the impact of CO2 emissions on the environment, the demand for cars with low fuel consumption and emissions increases. The behaviour of the different car manufacturers changes in response to this changing pattern in car market. They car manufacturers are also contributing to this pattern through their choice of new products that they put into the market. If a company does not adapt its behaviour then consumers will select not to buy its product. The process of selection thereby operates to amplify or dampen different patterns of behaviour. In a rain forest if the environment changes, for instance if there is an unusual drop in temperature, those species that are more able to adapt to the change in conditions will survive and those that are unable to will fall in number.

What are the implications of Complexity Theory for organisations?

If we accept that organisations are themselves complex systems then the following become apparent:

Order is not predetermined in an organisation. That is to say what happens one day will not necessarily happen on the next. Instead order is continuously created and recreated through the complex interactions by employees, suppliers and customers on an ongoing basis. Under certain conditions when the dominant patterns become unstable, then qualitatively different forms of behaviour can emerge.

No one is in control of the system. Those in leadership positions have influence but they cannot control how people behave nor can they predict the outcomes of their interventions. It is not possible to predict the behaviour of markets, consumers or competitors with any accuracy because new patterns can emerge in ways that are unpredictable, although in hindsight it is possible to make sense of how specific patterns may have come about. The global financial crisis is an illustration of how a new pattern can emerge in a form that few people anticipated or predicted.

No one is able to see the whole and understand the new patterns that are emerging. We can only respond to patterns that we are experiencing at a local level and the information that we are receiving through these interactions.

How an organisation functions cannot be determined by the imposition of top down rules and through design. Rather patterns of behaviour arise through the self-organising behaviour at the local level between employees interacting with, creating and re-creating patterns of behaviour across the organisation. In an organisation, we can think of the patterns of behaviour being social norms.

Change in organisations is necessarily messy, emergent and unpredictable. Small acts of change may have a dramatic impact on the behaviour of others; whilst significant gestures and attempts at change may have little effect. Novel forms of behaviour are constantly emerging whilst stable patterns are disappearing or being disrupted.

This perspective helps us understand why between 70 – 90% of organisational change initiatives fail. The traditional approach to changing organisations is for a small group of individuals in senior roles deciding how the organisation needs to change and then planning how to move the organisation from its current state to a desired future state. This way of thinking is predicated on linear and deterministic assumptions.

How do we help organisations to change in a complex world?

Firstly, we need to recognise that change in organisation is an emergent phenomenon that takes place when people change how they interact with each other. And that change requires a disruption and disturbance to an existing pattern.

Secondly, people have the capacity to be able to reflect on their behaviour, to learn and to adapt. This means that each of us can adjust our behaviour if we can understand the patterns that our behaviour contributes to at a system level. Leaders and change agents can help facilitate change therefore by helping people across the system to notice how they are reacting and responding to each others’ behaviour.

Thirdly, we are all interdependent and mutually regulating each others’ behaviour. We both amplify and dampen each others’ behaviour. If collectively, we become aware of how each of us is contributing to maintaining a pattern then new forms of organisation become possible. However, what emerges is necessarily unpredictable and unknown.
Finally, given we cannot predict the outcome of any changes we need to experiment and learn about the intended and unintended consequences of our actions and then readjust.

Change processes therefore need to:

Bring groups of people together from inside and outside of the organisation Help them notice the patterns that are maintained through their collective behaviour

Enable people to reflect on how they mutually regulate each other’s behaviour and become aware of the implicit rules that inform these interactions

Experiment with changes that are intended to interrupt unhelpful or problematic patterns

Observe and review what emerges as a consequence of any changes.

If you want to learn more about a relational and complexity based approach to organisation change then please drop me a line.