A simple model of culture change

Nick IngramStrategy10 Comments

How do you go about changing the culture of your organisation or team? And what the heck do we mean by “culture” anyway?

I’ve been trying to get my thinking straight about culture. This post outlines a “frame” for thinking about, and acting on, culture: a simple and practical way for a workshop to do some useful thinking in this domain.

I’d love your feedback on this “frame”.

What is culture?

Firstly, though, what’s culture? I guess you can define organisational culture as the “group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place“. But, that feels slightly too “one-dimensional” for my liking.

The best definition of organisational culture I can come up with is based on a return to the original metaphor. Remember, a “culture” in biology is a nutrient medium in which things grow (see photo above!). I assume that “organisational culture” is simply a metaphorical use of this original idea.

In other words, the culture of our organisation is the “medium” in which we live – the “fabric” that binds us – the “nutrients” that feed us.

Just as a plant will grow strong and tall, or weak and stunted, depending on the quality of the soil it’s grown in – so too for us: we will grow well and thrive in an organisation, or shrink and become our lesser selves – depending on the quality of the “medium” – the organisational culture – we are living in.

If our organisation’s culture is a “medium” – how can you operate on it? I suspect you can only do so indirectly. Hence my attempt at a “frame” below.

 How can we act on culture indirectly but still effectively and practically?

So, if all I can do is operate on culture indirectly, how can I do that practically and effectively?

I suspect there are four main ways we influence culture. And they are illustrated by my “frame” below:

culture diagram

As you can see, the diagram describes a model for how culture is influenced and how it influences us. I’ll talk you through it in a minute. But the first thing I want you to notice is that the word “culture” doesn’t appear anywhere. This is what I mean by having to act indirectly. To get at culture I have to act on other things.

So let’s have a look at this diagram.

The four main ways to influence culture

In the centre of my diagram is a cycle of four elements: behaviours; symbols; leadership; stories. I suspect these are the key “elements” that go to make up a culture. And therefore, if you want to change a culture you need to act on each of these elements. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. Behaviours

The behaviours I’m talking abut here are the “group norms” we see. What time do people get into work? Do they feel compelled to stay late? Is there an assumption that everyone has read an email five minutes after it’s been sent? Do people turn up to meetings on time – or is the culture such that you can come ten minutes late?

But I think they can also include such things as:

  • How we speak about people when they’re not there.
  • How we speak to people and treat them when they’ve done something wrong.
  • Whether we keep silent and do nothing when we see something happening that’s wrong.

Anyway, I suspect you get the idea. “Behaviours” is basically “the way we do things around here”.

So, if you want to change culture you need to start changing the “normed” behaviours. And that’s all about a critical mass of people, it’s about examples, it’s about doing things differently. I wonder whether the idea of “complex contagion” applies here? (That’s probably worth a blog post on its own at some point…)

2. Symbols

Symbols are profoundly important in our modern life: even as we tell ourselves that we are post-Enlightenment humans and not susceptible to that stuff. (If you doubt me, just notice all the rich iconography in your local shopping mall next time you’re there).

Symbols are the things we see that mean something to us – either deliberate or unintentional. Years ago, I worked at a company that measured your status by the number of ceiling tiles in your office – a great symbol of a hierarchical culture.

Common symbols might include:

  • What does the client reception area of your office look like – what message is it trying to deliver?
  • What’s highlighted on your intranet site. Eg how easily can I find the values statements compared to how easily I can find this week’s sales report.
  • What happens to a good sales person if they’re found to breach compliance requirements?
  • How many women are in senior management positions (not counting HR)?

You get the drift…

3. Leadership

I almost chose to leave this one out – because I suspect leadership expresses itself in behaviours, stories and symbols. Nonetheless, it’s such a vital way to act on culture that I had to include it.

In short, it’s going to be hard to get culture change unless the leadership buys in.

4. Stories

The stories we tell ourselves profoundly influence the culture of our organisation. Those stories can be explicit or more implicit. Overarching stories help us make sense of our world – they can give us a “schema” into which to place things. As such they will help us explain events and make meaning. Helpfully, or unhelpfully.

For example, I wonder what the prevailing story is in traditional newspaper organisations right now? I suspect the story being told is one of industry decline and disruption. That would make for an interesting culture in most newsrooms.

culture diagram

What goes on below the cycle?

As you can see in my diagram, I have put greyed-out Values and Beliefs underpinning the cycle of the four cultural elements. I’ve greyed them out because I don’t think you can act on Values and Beliefs directly. They are too fundamental. But I suspect you can get to them in the same way as you can get to culture – hence I have arrows pointing both ways. Nonetheless, your Values and Beliefs will underpin all your elements of culture: so it’s good to be as aware of them as you can be.

Culture influences how the individual thinks, feels and acts

The point of all this is how the culture is experienced each day by the individual. That’s why I have a person at the top of the diagram. She will think certain things, feel certain things, and do certain things depending on the influence of the culture. I suspect that her thoughts, feelings and actions feed back into the four element cycle – hence the arrows pointing both ways.

Any feedback?

I’d love your thoughts on this. I am trying to find an easy “frame” to use in workshops to help people make useful change.

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10 Comments on “A simple model of culture change”

  1. Hi Nick, the part for me that has real impact on the values and beliefs that an organisation instils the “why” or the purpose that drives an organisation. If this is more than just a PR exercise and a real meaning, then it should attract and ignight those that believe what the organisation or its leaders believe. It should align with the beliefs and values you represent in your diagram. If we do this the culture is much easier to align in that the stories, leadership, symbols and behaviours are really driven by our purpose. Simon Sinek is a real leader in this area.

  2. Culture is plural not individual. It certainly affects individuals, but it power is innately collective. Western minds tend to view the individual as the building block of society or organisations, but this in itself is a cultural trait. No individual leads or defines a culture. It is collaborative and (I think) largely below the radar of conscious choice most of the time. So any attempt to change culture must address its collective nature: tribe, cult, family. Culture compacts and aligns schemas into a self-reinforcing relationship. That is why culture affects perception rather than the other way around. Schemas are short-hand ways of dealing with complexity: right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable. They usually have to be shown to be inadequate before they relinquish control on our thinking. That is why deep culture change is usually so traumatic.

    1. Nick Ingram

      Thanks Peter. You guys at PS2 are great on culture – it’s good to have you here!
      I like the way you’re talking about schemas. And it seems like you’re describing culture as an “emergent” property of a community. That feels useful. It also is another angle on why it’s hard to affect culture directly.
      BTW – I did worry about putting an individual at the top of the diagram and thought to myself “that’s very Western” at the time. :)

  3. Hi Nick. Talking of theories of organisations (and culture)… back in 1938, Chester Barnard (a long-time Exec at AT&T) wrote a book based on a series of lectures he gave at Harvard. It has been re-published 11 times since then and became a cornerstone of organisational theory. About half-way through the book he describes processes that are always at work in all organisations; Organisational Processes as distinct from Operational Processes (which differ from department to department, organisation to organisation). Just four organisational processes. With minimal modification, they were adopted as foundations in Japanese management courses.

    They can be broadly described as the ongoing processes of interaction (communication), visioning (purpose), motivation (aligning effort) and learning. Selection of people into (and out of) the organisation was considered implicit in those processes, but reflecting on my own experience, I find it useful to add it in as a separate process.

    Perhaps they will be a useful reference point here? They are implicit in elements of your model, and include the point that Kristy makes about purpose.

    1. Nick Ingram

      Really interesting ideas Tudor. I like the “aligning effort”/”motivation” idea as well. I’ve had another client post on LinkedIn about “attitude” – which kind of feels similar (although probably more individual). Good to see “purpose” validated as well, as you say.

  4. Hi Nick, I think this is really useful. I especially like the petri dish idea. I’ve been trying to read and think about school culture’s and how they can change. Found a helpful distinction last night in a book called Transforming School Culture by Anthony Muhammad, a principal from public schools in the US. He talked about Technical Change versus Cultural change. Sometimes I think we can change things in organisations (schools) by lots of technical changes (timetables, revising curriculum) – but cultural change involves human beings and in his words, “leaders adept at gaining cooperation and skilled in the art of diplomacy, salesmanship, patience, endurance and encouragement.” I’ve also found Leadership and Self-Deception – The Arbinger Institute, a very interesting read – both for leadership, relationally and also where it has commonality theologically. :) S

  5. Nick, I love this metaphor, and the diagram is great for culture – precisely because the word ‘culture’ doesn’t appear. Culture is like the air we breath – as soon as you notice it, something has changed; you have stepped outside of your normal frame of reference. (Trying to suppress thoughts of elevators here).

    We can only see culture by observing its constituent parts, and you have named them well.

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