As part of our research into the practice of designing organisations, we spoke to leaders and practitioners about their experience and reflections on organisation design projects. Most of them acknowledged that, with the benefit of hindsight, they had not given sufficient attention to how changes would be brought to life.

Underestimating transitions

In every case, we were told that the amount of time and resources that was necessary was underestimated. Looking back, most felt that transitions require a minimum of 12-18 months and that 18-24 months is more realistic, particularly for more complex changes. In practice however all the attention goes on agreeing what the organisation needs to look like in the future, and significantly less attention is directed towards:

• What is being communicated through the process
• How people will transition into new roles, teams and departments.

Culture-creating moments

We discovered that embedded in the design process and subsequent organisational transitions were culture-creating moments. These related to how any changes were done. They included events such as:

1. Who was involved in the design process
2. How design changes were decided
3. How the changes were communicated and the rationale given for them
4. How senior appointments were managed
5. Who was appointed to key roles
6. How exits or redundancies were managed
7. How the new design was launched or went ‘live’
8. The extent to which endings, transitions and beginnings were acknowledged.

In these moments, important symbolic questions are addressed through what actually happens (rather than what is espoused). These include:

• Who will be included and who will be excluded?
• How will power be exercised and decisions made?
• What is actually changing and what is staying the same?
• What will be valued in the future (and what won’t)?

Such moments define or re-define cultural norms and convey the actual values of senior leaders. What happens around these events, therefore, reinforces the core messages of the redesign or undermines them. They influence people’s commitment to the new design, the relationships that form and whether people act in ways that support the aims of the organisation.

Consciously attending to process

The emotional impact of these key moments is significant but is often underestimated or avoided because they surface sensitivities or uncomfortable issues. They are however unavoidable realities of the re-design process and opportunities to model desired norms or values. They need therefore to be engaged with consciously and with sensitivity to ensure that consistent, meaningful and clear messages are communicated. This can be difficult to do when you are steeped in an established culture or in the midst of a complex design process. The risk however is you sleepwalk into reinforcing the very patterns you want to change. In organisation design projects, as well as supporting the design process, we help everyone involved to attend to transitions and the symbolic, emotional and cultural dynamics of the process.

If you would like to read our research report, you can download it here:

Throughout 2020, we conducted an action research project with our clients into the practice of designing organisations. One observation we made is that most organisations are in a constant process of redesigning themselves as they adapt to ever-increasing levels of uncertainty and complexity. Because of this, organisations are becoming more fluid and structures more transitory. As 2020 unfolded, we observed and heard how the pandemic is amplifying and accelerating this process.

In many organisations, multiple design projects are happening simultaneously at different levels. For instance, we are working with a large and complex University that is changing its structures and working practices across the whole system whilst at the same time individual faculties and schools within them are reorganising how they operate. In many cases, we heard how the tail end of one design project overlaps with the start of the next. For employees this can leave them feeling in permanent transition and struggling to make sense of how to make decisions or get things done. This stirs up anxieties and insecurities.

These observations led us to conclude that organisation design is increasingly an ongoing and iterative process. We need therefore to shift our thinking away from creating ‘the design’ – which suggests the construction of a static, enduring entity – towards ‘designing’ as a critical ongoing practice in organisations.

Our research indicates that designing requires:

> Keeping the future in mind whilst drawing on past experiences to understand what will work in a given culture,

> Accepting that designing is a messy and unfolding process and not a neat linear one,

> Focusing on ‘good enough’ design decisions that are able to adapt and flex with feedback,

> Creating ownership by involving people to develop ideas and make decisions,

> Encouraging the questioning of assumptions and creating space to explore design options and possibilities, and

> Taking transitions seriously and undertaking realistic assessments of support people will require to let go of the past, learn new skills, and take up new roles.

To make this shift, we argue that organisations need to possess the expertise and capability to design and redesign themselves, and leaders at all levels need to see designing as a core part of their role.

If you want to read more about our research, you can download our report “Whose design is it anyway?” at:

It is by no means business as usual for anyone during this crisis period. While the impact varies from individual to individual, we are all living with less certainty, often more anxiety, and questioning some of the taken for granted in our lives.

Organisations too are re-thinking what they do, and how they do it- in many cases coming right back to fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. Our engineering clients are engaging with the challenges of building ventilators and producing PPE. Our clients in tourism have been concerned with getting people home safely- and playing their part in keeping the supply chain going for vital things such as food & medicine.

Like many consultancies we have been asked to find innovative ways of continuing essential assignments. Indeed people have been surprised at how much you can still get done in the virtual space once you get over the new rules of engagement.  Sarah Beart’s blog on virtual working  is well worth reading on these.

We have noticed that many organisations are needing to re-evaluate and adapt their structures or ways of working to adapt to the new reality. The broad principles we follow continue to apply,  however some things need to be emphasised more than ever.

With that in mind, our (slightly revisited) 10 top tips for organisation design are…

1.  Be as clear as you can be on what the strategy is AND see organisation design as an opportunity to continue to engage people in the development and the implementation of strategy. At this time of heightened uncertainty the importance of making sense together is even more crucial. We’ve had many a light bulb moment in workshops as the implications of a strategy memo suddenly become much clearer- this will be even more the case at the moment.

2. Create a small and representative design team to work on this and give them a clear remit. With the right facilitation support they will design for the strategy & for the future- and most importantly feel ownership of the new design.

3. Pay even more attention than usual to communication. We’ve seen great examples of very open communication by CEOs in the last 6 weeks- very conscious that distrust and paranoia thrive in a vacuum. The same also applies to organisation design work: even more attention than usual needs to be paid to communicating on the process and the decisions that are being taken to those who are not part of the design team.

4. Build a real warts and all picture of what is and isn’t working about the current structure. And share that picture (with the warts) as you start the re-design work so you have enough shared context from which to work.

5. Trust that a good design process (like ours) will get you to a good outcome for your organisation– even though no one knows at the outset what that outcome will be. As we said to a workshop participant recently “We haven’t failed yet”.

6. Beware of the sketch someone (the CEO/ an expert consultant) has drawn up on the back of an envelope and which is “the answer”. It might not be a bad idea- but it won’t have the right level of ownership in the organisation to allow for a successful implementation

7. Be pacey – but don’t rush it. This work is important for any organisation and has significant implications- so it’s important to take the time to get it right. That doesn’t mean it has to take years. Our experience suggests that 6-8 weeks is enough to come up with a well thought through robust organisational design.

8. Be creative. In the last few weeks face to face workshops have gone virtual- and clients have been positively surprised at the quality of work that they have been able to do.

9. Plan for implementation up-front. A significant re-design always requires implementation resource: leadership time, HR, internal communication and some project coordination. Don’t be surprised by this!

10. Plan for transition support. Individuals will end up in new roles needing to do all the “traditional” management stuff (set new KPIs, implement new governance processes, create new leadership teams etc) AND in all likelihood with individuals in their teams requiring significant emotional support. At the best of times it will typically takes 6 months to individuals to be fully up & running in a new structure. It might take longer this time, and not providing appropriate support runs the risk of not realising the benefits of your re-design.

We hope these tips and pointers are helpful. What would you add from your own experience?

Like all organisations we are looking how to deal with the effects of the Coronavirus outbreak. Our clients are thinking about how to keep making progress on planned work which involved bringing groups of people together, sometimes from around the globe, to tackle issues like strategy and organisation design. Should they just stop, because who wants to do strategy or change work on a crackly phone line?

We would agree about the crackly phone line. But we know from experience it’s possible to do excellent work virtually; everything from ordinary business meetings, developmental experiences such as coaching and leadership programmes, right through to strategy and organisation design. We have clients we’ve never actually met face to face. And with our own partners living and working in several cities, we have virtual weekly meetings and run virtual development for ourselves too.

We do know that you can’t do it by just replicating what you would do if you were all in a room together, and endlessly apologising for what can’t happen. So we thought we would share a few of our top tips about how to run serious business conversations virtually:

1. One virtual, all virtual. This is an important point which we first learned from Ghislaine Caulat’s research on Virtual Leadership (thank you Ghislaine – full plug below!). If you want to create a conversation in which all can participate then make sure everyone is connecting in from a quiet and private separate room. Having people using different channels e.g. one person calling into a small meeting, or small groups huddled together in different locations who CAN communicate with each other in breaks, often makes for unhelpful sub-group dynamics, and a feeling of exclusion for people on their own. And we would argue that it’s either video for all or audio for all – make a healthy level playing field for your conversation.

2. Act like normal humans. Find ways to do your normal social processes. So many people launch straight into the “business” of the meeting without going through the basics of “how are you” and sometimes even forget “hello”. This does little to draw people into giving their full attention to the conversation at hand. In fact we’d say you need to devote more time to this aspect when working virtually to allow people to tune into each other. Find out where each other are, how each other are, allow a bit of messy chat if that’s how you normally start a meeting. Draw people into being interested in each other – then you’ve got their attention.

3. Choose a good technology. And make sure beforehand that everyone who is going to be in the meeting can use it. Don’t just ask – check with a test call. Sound basic? How often have you found yourself shut out of a virtual event, or trying to run one with a key person unable to join. We currently favour zoom for its reliability and flexibility: it’s easy to set up, and doesn’t require any downloading of apps. You can have break out groups, shared content, co-created content and all kinds of other useful features (and judging from a recent experience you can do a great Q and A from Botswana for a large conference). However, some of our clients’ firewalls block it: we want to know this in advance, and then we use something else – Skype, Webex, Facetime.

4. Tend to your dynamics. Remember that working virtually amplifies existing social and emotional dynamics, and can disinhibit people. Things that are difficult to talk about in a room together can be even trickier virtually, and people may therefore either say a lot less or a lot more than they ordinarily would. Take care with yourselves (especially right now as there’s the extra pressure caused by this current outbreak)

5. Design and redesign your conversation – don’t just expect it to happen! We have had some previous blogs touching on the importance for leaders of getting skilled at designing conversations (here for example). Think about topics for the conversations, where you need interaction within your group, what needs to be formal and what informal, what is better done offline or asynchronously, and what the purpose is of each element of the conversation. If you were going to have a strategy day or Executive awayday, feel free to have a day but design it with several short sessions spaced with breaks for work offline, food and comfort. Maybe share more in advance, use different methods to get feedback.

We’re not relishing the disruption (and suffering) that the Coronavirus is bringing. But we are working closely with our clients to design work that helps them keep on track with their business priorities. We hope this gives you heart – and if you’re not used to working virtually and would like to think with us about how your organisation can do this well, then drop us a line on And if you want to know more about Ghislaine Caulat’s research her excellent book is available, on Kindle too.

Sarah Beart and Simon Martin

One perspective that informs our consulting practice at Metalogue is cultural anthropology.  We see value in trying to understand the symbolic meaning of behaviour, language, artefacts, rituals and ways of working.  This lens often reveals new and different ways of making sense of what goes on in organisations.   We’ve learnt to value being immersed in organisations, hanging out and observing first-hand what goes on between people.

Upon entering an organisation for the first time, we are confronted with the challenge of figuring out how things are done and what it means to be a member of the organisation.  This is rarely a comfortable experience, at least for me. Clients hire us to help them to achieve specific goals, and with this often comes an expectation that you understand or know what to do.   More often than not, however, we don’t know what to do because we simply don’t understand enough about the organisation, what actually happens or what’s happened in the past.   

Rather than seeing this as a problem, I am learning that it’s precisely this ‘not understanding’ that is often required.  This is because helping a leader, team or organisation to change (as we all know) is not as simple as telling them what they need to do differently.  In most instances, people know what they need to do – that’s not their difficulty – it’s figuring out how to change.    This is only possible if they become aware of what they take for granted, their assumptions, beliefs and norms.

‘Outsiders’ often notice things that ‘insiders’ have stopped noticing.  Furthermore, being curious and asking simple or naïve questions about seemingly mundane events, can help others to question what they do and why.  With a little encouragement and support, managers and their teams are usually able to adopt a similar position of curiosity about themselves. This can be as simple as asking them to be aware of, over a period of time, a range of everyday expressions of culture (such as language, norms, social roles, artefacts, rituals and ceremonies, myths, dress codes, etc) and then exploring what they have discovered.  Groups usually become highly engaged when given such an opportunity to study themselves.  Such exercises can prove to be both sobering and hilarious, often at the same time, as contradictory and seemingly non-sensical patterns are surfaced and explored.  Bringing together my ‘outsider’ perspective and their ‘insider’ viewpoint can therefore reveal deeper levels of understanding of how work is undertaken and its consequences.

Some examples from the field

To give a simple illustration, I’ve been coaching a newly appointed Director in a public sector organisation who for the first time in her career was expected to participate in governance meetings around service provision and metrics.  In the meetings, she felt like she was an ‘outsider’ as she struggled to understand her role, what was happening, the language that was used and what was expected of her. I took the position that when she attended the meeting, she was crossing a boundary between her professional culture and the managerial culture of the organisation.    To help her to make sense of this transition, I encouraged her to take up the position of an anthropologist who needed to de-code the culture of the meeting.  In our sessions, I helped her to describe the patterns that she observed and experienced.  This led her to the following description (somewhat abbreviated for this blog):

> A lengthy report of over 250 pages that was prepared in advance of the meeting. This covered clinical and financial performance for each department.

> The most senior managers sat at the centre of the table with managers from the same department sitting together around the table.

> The meeting took on an air of formality with each department having a specific time bound slot on the agenda in which to present the data for their area.

> The presenter would be careful not to ‘show any dirty washing in public’.

> The senior managers directed the flow and pattern of the meeting by asking questions, expressing concerns and making demands on the departments.

> When ‘issues’ were raised, the presenter would always state clearly what was being done to resolve it.

> Discussion tended to be limited to a few clarifying questions with very limited challenge of the presenter or exchange of ideas or opinions.

> The general tone was one of muted responses and an absence of explicit displays of emotions.

The meeting’s ritualistic quality appeared to serve the implicit purpose of providing assurance to powerful stakeholders, such as the Board and different external bodies, that risks were being managed and were under control.  The scene itself reminded me of the Sociologist Erving Goffman’s delineation between front stageand back stagesocial interactions. The meeting was a theatre in which a public image was presented for an audience.   They were engaged in impression management, showing that they were in control of their services and that risks were known and managed.   My client experienced considerable frustration in these meetings because she felt their content and the tone did not reflect what was happening in the organisation.  Whilst, the above exercise did not resolve her frustrations, it did reveal to her that she needed to work backstage, behind the scenes, to surface difficulties and risks (rather than raise them formally at the meeting).

With another client, who I was working with for the first time, I was struck by how all my interactions were short in duration, fast paced and purposeful.  I noticed how I experienced a constant pressure to get to the point quickly or respond immediately.  When asked for my opinion about what needed to be done to support a transformation process, I shared my observations and experience of our interactions. This led me to suggest that people would need space and time to reflect together which would need some deliberate disruptions.  This hit a chord with those present who were quickly able to recognise the cultural pattern and that they needed to slow down and think about what the changes would mean for them.

In summary, inquiring into cultural dynamics can help managers to understand how they can get things done and help teams to understand how their norms and taken-for-granted assumptions affect what they do and how they do it.

If you are interested in reading more about organisations as cultures then please download our research report: “Culture … where to start? The realities of Culture Change in Organisations”



Goffman, E (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Most of our clients are engaged in attempts to develop or change their culture in some way, shape or form.  They tend however to tell us they find such initiatives to be tricky, demanding and, ultimately, disappointing.  To understand why this is the case, we have been inquiring with leaders and OD practitioners into their experience of trying to change culture.  Our report: “Culture…where to start? The realities of culture change in organisations” summarises our findings and practical insights.

What we found

We discovered that a high degree of scepticism exists around planned efforts to change culture, particularly when their aims are ambitious, abstract and idealistic.  Those responsible for these initiatives are often left feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of what to do or where to start.   They can absorb significant time, energy and resources without delivering the desired or hoped for outcomes. This tends to leave those involved feeling helpless, frustrated and disappointed.

What we learnt

As a result of our research, we concluded that to facilitate culture change, leaders and change agents need to:

> Identify and communicate the adaptive challenge facing the organisation

> Translate this into clear, specific and meaningful goals that employees care about and are committed to

> Understand the full richness, complexity and depth of their cultures

> Raise awareness of how specific cultural patterns help or hinder the achievement of their goals

> Signal change through their own actions and by disrupting established norms, assumptions & beliefs

> Challenge people to question what they do and how they maintain specific cultural patterns

> Change symbols, structures, processes, workspaces and policies to reinforce desired patterns and values

> Review regularly with employees how they are making sense of the changes they are experiencing, hearing and seeing

> Be patient, consistent and persistent!

The above is a high-level summary of our findings, if you want to read stories from our clients and see more about what we discovered then please download our report:



Alternative Ways of Knowing: 

Finding new possibilities for how to enable cultural change and transformation.

By Kevin Power & Simon Martin

In our last blog, we talked about applying “a liberal dose of science and an equal measure of art” when exploring organisational culture and change. As practitioners, one frame we find helpful comes from John Heron and Peter Reason (2008), who talk about there being 4 “ways of knowing”:

‘Propositional’ and ‘Practical’ ways of knowing are far more accepted in modern organisational life. These can be found, for example, in policy, process and best practice procedures. They are gleaned from the experience of what has happened in the past. They are what “normally works” and could be seen, too, in the competencies and routines developed through carrying out the daily acts of working life.

‘Experiential’ knowing is described as the embodied encounter with the experience of the moment; the second by second unfolding of everything that happens. ‘Presentational’ knowing is the processing of this experience into “artistic form”.

These last two focus on intuitive, rather than pre-conditioned, responses. By drawing on this kind of data it can help to “create” new perspectives and new possibilities.

Working from Intuition

When we are dealing with many familiar organisational situations, then Propositional and Practical knowing may serve us well. However, when dealing with complex, systemic questions such as culture change we do well to explore the other forms of knowing too.

To bring this to life, one way we help individuals and groups to access their experience in a presentational way is to use what we describe as ‘cultural artefacts’. We ask them to choose something that represents or resonates with what it means for them to be a participant in their organisational culture. The request is normally unusual enough that they have to work intuitively because the “right answer” is not available!

Sometimes people bring along an item that has been sitting at the bottom of a desk drawer or something that is stuck on an office wall. They might refer back to what they first noticed on joining the organisation or a source of frustration or pride. Other times they will choose an evocative image or an object from home to express something that is otherwise not easily spoken of.

Tsunamis and Crowns

For example, during a recent strategy & culture workshop, a senior leader in a manufacturing based company offered up an imagined tsunami image (see below). It was his way of describing the experience of working in the context of constant uncertainty that faced the business.

In their leadership roles were they supposed to exude calmness or agitation? Or were they being perceived as in denial? In an ensuing discussion between a cross section of colleagues about the impact of Brexit, they realised that this was just another context for a typical pattern in the business. In this case it had become the norm to carry on with resilience and belief that you can address whatever issues or challenges that come along through rational and calm endeavour. This was an engineering-led organisation after all. Yet this response was leading to other unintended consequences such as cycles of anxiety for some people and complacency or disempowerment for others.

With another client group, a pink crown was chosen to represent how people related to their senior colleagues. On the one hand there was respect and a sense of responsibility inherent in the symbol of monarchy. Yet at the same time the playful colour undercut this with something that was a serious concern. In a subsequent discussion that included the executive team, the  group talked about a nagging feeling that their bosses were unlikely to stay around for very long. It was therefore not a surprise to learn that it sometimes led to ambivalence in how people responded to new strategic imperatives.

Transformative Conversations

In both these examples, these patterns had grown to become cultural norms and had become resistant to previous leadership interventions and exhortations for change. Interventions that were based more on the propositional “rule book”, such as signing up to agreed “leadership behaviours” or team charters. By surfacing these cultural patterns through a more intuitive “artistic” form, people from different levels in the organisation found it easier to talk more openly with each other about their attitudes and responses. These perspectives were always there but had remained hidden and unspoken about. Now they could be given language and worked with in the spirit of changing their organisations for the better.

In our recent research into Organisation Transformation we refer to the importance of enabling transformative conversations, which can often more easily and gently be elicited through artefact work. We don’t profess to have an amazing one-size-fits-all model for how to make cultural change happen. But we do know how to build a process that helps clients to make sense of their own cultural patterns – with emphasis on the richness that different ways of knowing and multiple perspectives can bring. We also know what might engender different responses and what might disturb what has become fixed.

At the same time, we support the view that the role of leaders and change agents is to create the conditions for change to become possible. This is a reframe on the cult of leader as the heroic instrumentalist. It is a reminder, too, that non-rational approaches that have a more humble starting point can often bring about unexpected, and sometimes transformative, results.

You can download our latest research report here:


Key References:

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2008). The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nd ed., pp. 366-380). London: Sage.

McLean, A (2013). Leadership and Cultural Webs in Organisations: Weavers Tales. Emerald Group Publishing.




In our work with culture and transformation, we often talk about the importance of narrative and metaphor. In fact we wrote a report about this just recently. ( Metalogue report on Transformation )

So it’s always pleasing when what we say is illustrated by others – in this case by Greta Thunberg in particular. If you manged to miss her speech to the UK parliament here it is (Greta Thunberg speech).

What has struck us about it is the change in narrative

For 30 years we’ve talked about “sustainable development”. And she has offered a completely different phrase: ‘climate crisis”. And the game changes.

Speaking personally- for years I’ve been aware, probably a bit more than most, of the importance of somebody somewhere doing something about the climate stuff. And I’ve made some micro changes- better recycling, a bit less meat, and known there were other things I should do- but you know, I’m busy, there is lots going on and I will get to it later..

And yet in reading her speech, and many other articles and reports since then, what is clear to me is that “later” needs to turn into “now”. Because you don’t deal with a crisis later. You do it now. The sense of urgency that has been lacking for so many years is suddenly there. It feels deeply uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. For me- and of course, because Greta has chosen to speak in the name of the future- for my children and for the natural world which we are part of.

Her choice to speak for others, for the future and for the planet, is an immensely powerful leadership act

Her skill in doing so is remarkable.

So in the last fortnight, some very different conversations things have taken place in our home, with clients, colleagues and friends. And we have changed how we source food, what we eat, our travel plans. I’ve talked to senior clients about what their real contribution to the climate issue is. I’ve talked with friends about what they would re-imagine in their professions if environmental impact was a key consideration. There’s excitement and interest. Political parties are taking notice…What is required is cultural change on a scale we rarely think about.

Much like cultural change in an organisation, no single or individual act does the trick

It requires action from power and institutions, but also from each of us. It remains to be seen whether this is in fact a tipping point in terms of how we collectively face up to these issues, and make real deep changes. And because we are social beings the power of the collective will be there encouraging us not to disrupt too much, and holding us to our current and past ways of doing. Making deeply necessary changes will feel risky and uncomfortable, and will require courage. It will require being different, and finding the words to explain why we are being different.

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.


In the “University of Heathrow” (as an esteemed academic colleague of ours refers to it), waiting for a flight to the current round of difficult meetings, it’s easy to get tempted into buying the latest expensive, glossy book promising the secrets of leading successful change. Full of case studies illustrating the successes of improbably wise and prescient leaders, not to mention impossibly diligent and capable consultants, these books suggest that if only you applied this model or that framework to your organisation then the holy grail of change, lasting success (and a large bonus) could be yours.

Call us cynical? Go ahead! Any of these books will do – in the hands of a skilled practitioner. Of course, the realities of what goes on in your organisation will be different, and the people you work with may be less glamorous and assured than their case study counterparts. But our provocation is that any change or strategy model will do as long as it is used with skill to stimulate and contain productive conversations.

In our view of the world, an organisation is not merely a machine to be re-engineered, an ecosystem to be cultivated or a political system to be manipulated. We think of organisations as essentially conversational phenomena. An organisation is the emerging pattern of all the conversations that take place between all the people who are in some way shaping and shaped by what the organisation is and does ( so yes this includes customers, suppliers, your local community, the CEO and the cleaners) . And culture is something an organisation does, rather than has.

The role of leaders and change agents is to convene and configure conversations that offer the prospect of change. And in our view (shared by consultant and author Peter Hawkins) the change has to begin to happen within the conversation itself – otherwise nothing is changing. (See Peter Hawkins’ 2011 book “Leadership Team Coaching”). This is unconventional in a world dominated by a “diagnose-plan-implement” mantra. It’s controversial to put forward the idea that things might and do change as you begin to talk to people about the current situation, rather than waiting for the plan to be put into action.

Conversational skills

When we talk about convening, we mean identifying and gathering together the necessary people to participate in the conversation. And by configuring we mean the art of structuring a series of conversations, and making good choices about who needs to talk with whom about what. Convening and configuring are crafts – it’s not enough just to get everyone in a room. But they are crafts that can be learned and, we would argue, need to be learned by leaders everywhere. As one client for a rather fraught partnership event put it “You are the people who know when we need to go from pairs to cabaret tables.” We laughed and agreed at the time, but later were troubled. It seems that while leaders undoubtedly need the skills and confidence to convene and configure conversations for strategy and change, we’ve rarely seen this in the curriculum of a leadership development programme

If any old change model will do, why do we use change and strategy models at all? We think they actually do serve an important purpose, by prompting leaders and consultants to create and convene conversations around particular issues of importance to the organisation, describing them in particular ways. The model chosen describes the problem as seen by the organisation’s leaders or consulting team – so you may find yourself working with a model around competition (e.g. Porter’s Five Forces) or one around culture (a culture diagnostic – is culture a disease we wonder?) or a directional policy matrix. There are general models of change too – for example John Kotter’s step model. The purpose of ALL these models, in our view, is mainly to stimulate conversation. The framing of the conversation is important, as those of you who’ve read our research into Organisational Transformation will know (if you haven’t, just click HERE

The effects of conversations

Are you sceptical about the idea that conversations change things? If, like us, you have been to a lot of fairly dull meetings then we can understand your view. Lots of ritualised and pre-scripted exchanges – the detail may differ from month to month but everyone knows their part and can take their cue. We are talking about the importance of conversations in which something novel is said or done. As John Shotter reminded us at a workshop some years ago, if you have any doubt that words don’t change things, just think about the first time that you risked saying “I love you…” to another adult. No one knew what would happen next. But that whatever happens next everything is different about the relationship. Conversations with novelty, where risks are taken, change us intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Good starting points for change conversations

So what does make for a good conversation – one with a “center not sides” as Bill Isaacs puts it (in his book Dialogue). In our view, good conversations are convened around a question with a “How” or “what” start rather than a topic. Why? Because if you are trying to DO things differently, then it is helpful to start with a framing that suggests that there will be different action(s) when you know the answer. Examples might include things like “How do we get closer to our customers?” or “How do we organise our people to make the most of the skills we have?”.

Good conversations also have the right people in them, and focus on what is in the gift of the people who are in the room. It is no good having a change conversation that allocates actions to people who aren’t present, or that requires people who aren’t there to change what they do. How often do we hear that a board or exec team has decided that the next management layer down (it is almost always the very next layer down) need to change their behaviour, improve their leadership, raise their game, get better at delegating and generally shape up. So the executive team commission some change work for this group, or perhaps a leadership development programme.

This way of working ignores the contribution to the existing pattern made by the exec team, and indeed of all the other people in the organisation. So we might ask, what is the contribution that you, the exec team, are inadvertently making to keeping things as they currently are? What kind of conversations do you need to have with each other, and with this next layer down, if things are going to be different? What are you willing to change about what YOU do? This is inconvenient to a top team that is comfortable believing the problems lie elsewhere. Sometimes when we pose this question it turns out to be the last conversation we are ever invited to have in that organisation. It’s probably better that way, because if the people commissioning the change work aren’t prepared to contemplate their own part in things then it’s going to be very difficult to change what anyone else in the organisation does.

Power and feelings in change conversations

This leads us on to an important point about power. When things change in an organisation, it means a change in “power relations” by which we mean things like who has and uses what kinds of power. This is often implicit rather than explicit in the change brief: for example, successfully delegating more will involve the “delegatees” having and using the power to take more decisions and responsibility. Taking more leadership may involve speaking up in company town halls, and perhaps contesting senior decisions. This is going to be disturbing to all kinds of people – those doing the challenging, those being challenged and those who are witnesses to what goes on. And it requires everyone to be able to hold their nerve in the face of unfamiliar, unscripted conversations where unprecedented things are being said, and people don’t know the rules about how to respond.

To state the obvious, this creates a lot of feelings. Many years ago we sat in a conversation of about 40 senior managers who were contemplating a huge reorganisation and a change of ownership in a large, traditional, heavily unionised organisation. New things began to be said about possible changes to working practices and the room felt electric. One man commented at the coffee break “I don’t know what kind of talk is, but it’s dangerous and I don’t like it.” It’s a common reaction. People feel excited, nervous, sad, elated, terrified, angry, numb, enthusiastic and indeed more or less any other emotion you can name.

Much of this doesn’t make its way into change models, except perhaps in rather simplified terms where people are described as “resistant” or “bought-in” to change. We argue this is based on a bit of an oversimplification of what goes on; all kinds of emotions are going to stir up in conversations about change, for all members of an organisation, for its leaders and consultants too. So good conversations need to allow the emotions to be expressed, and understood. This requires additional skills of convening and configuring skill, so that people get a chance to notice how they feel, and to express it while also departing from familiar patterns of talking.

At this point, you might moment to think about a change you would like to make in your area, and about what you are trying to achieve. What follows below are the sorts of questions we find ourselves asking when we are being called upon to “do change” – to convene and configure some conversations:

What is the question that we are really working on, or need to?

What relationships are important?

What is the current quality of those relationships?

What conversations are actually possible or realistic at this stage?

Who needs to be part of these conversations?

What formats or styles of conversation need to happen and in what order?

Who has what kind of power in relation to this question?

What constraints are there?

What are the anxieties in relation to this question, and for whom?

How much structure is needed for this conversation and of what kind?

What needs amplifying?

What needs dampening?

How might it be possible to draw on or access wider forms of knowing? (when it comes to emotional matters, try engaging in expressive activities like drawing or sculpting)

Find these questions useful? We’d love to hear it if you do.

Like to know more? Drop us a line or give us a call (07776 171474) – you will have deduced that we love a good conversation.