Culture change. It’s a huge and popular topic these days. There are so many departments that want to lead this area, human resources, change management, finance, organisational design, manufacturing, the list is as varied as the department names your business uses. Everyone tries their own strategy, but they all run into the same problem;
“Culture determines and limits strategy”
– Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 1985
So why does culture keep reasserting itself, no matter how much well-meaning change management is brought in. Internal consultants, external consultants, charismatic leaders, servant leaders, there are more leadership models than you can shake a stick at. Yet still, the culture reasserts itself, it is pervasive and incredibly hard to change. Why?
Culture change efforts always focus on changing behaviours. It is right that behaviours must change, but with all these skilled people changing behaviours, why doesn’t the culture change?
Johnson and Scholes proposed a model of culture in their cultural web. There are many aspects to culture, and it is vitally important to connect each of the aspects of the cultural web to the values and beliefs required for our new culture.
One of the aspects of Johnson and Scholes cultural web that seems to be overlooked is Stories.
In every aspect of life, we tell stories, and these stories grow to be an oral history of the underlying “common sense” values and beliefs in the business. As change agents we work really hard to change behaviours, but how much effort do we put into changing the stories told? If we change behaviours to conflict with the stories in the business, we set new behaviours in conflict with the historical values and beliefs of the business. We start to hear comments such as “I know we aren’t supposed to say this, but…” or see the more experienced heads in the business purse their lips or shake their heads when new processes or behaviours are implemented. The old stories subside, but they don’t go away, they are instead told in quiet corners to select groups. The problem is the select groups overlap, so the story is still told as the history of the business, and the new behaviours are labelled as “the latest fad” and members are told to “just keep your head down and ride it out”. We create cliques and cabals to either protect our history or We can’t just suppress the old stories, and we can’t create new stories fast enough to displace the old values.
So what is the one thing that must be changed?
You can’t eliminate the story since it is part of the oral history of the business, so use it by changing the perspective of the story! Don’t just focus on changing behaviour, ensure the stories told in the business reflect the changing values and beliefs. Us the telling and retelling of the stories to change how the stories are interpreted and understood.
For example, if you have a hero culture and stories are told about how people have cut through bureaucracy to find solutions to past situations, just telling people not to tell the story won’t work. Telling people to obey the bureaucracy won’t work. Change the emphasis of the story to match the new belief system; add to the story, for example, add that whilst it was a brilliant outcome, highlight that there was a huge risk to the business from missing paperwork, and we were lucky to get away with it. When you get an example of the bureaucracy controlling the process and preventing an error, add a positive that using the bureaucracy has enabled the business to meet the customer needs. Once the change is embedded the story is changed forever. Reality hasn’t been changed, there is no deception, we have interpreted the old story in line with our new values. All the while we are telling new stories, stories that support the new values and beliefs.
In this way, we accelerate the culture change by adding new stories and modifying the interpretation of the old stories to match the modified cultures and beliefs embedded in the business. Be careful though, if you just tell people to interpret the story differently you will drive it into the shadows. The new interpretation must be through storytelling in collaboration with the people who guard the business beliefs and used to flush out conflicts between new and old values in a positive way for discussion and debate.
In summary, if you want to change the way your business behaves, change the stories that are told in and by the business both new and old.