How to change an organization’s culture

Is it possible to transform dysfunctional corporate culture like that of United Airlines into the employee engagement of Southwest or the indifferent customer service at Kmart into the customer-first approach of Wegmans?

After over thirty years working with organizations, I think that it’s possible to change organizational culture — but it’s far from easy.

First, many organizations are in denial that there’s any kind of problem with their culture, and getting leadership to think otherwise is an uphill or hopeless battle.

Second, if an organization does get to the point where “we want to change our culture”, there’s rarely an explicit consensus of what “needs to be” or “might be” changed.

Third, culture is an emergent property of the interactions between people in the organization, not a linear consequence of deeply buried assumptions that can be challenged and “treated” in isolation. Prescriptive, formulaic approaches to culture change, are therefore rarely if ever successful.

Finally, organizational culture self-perpetuates through a complex web of rules and relationships whose very interconnectedness resist change; even if you have a clear idea of what you want to do, there are no uncoupled places to start.

So, what might we be able to do? For concise advice, I recommend Chris Corrigan‘s excellent article The myth of managed culture change. Read it!

In particular, this excerpt caught my eye:

“Culture is an emergent set of patterns that are formed from the interactions between people. These patterns cannot be reverse engineered. Once they exist you need to change the interactions between people if you want to change the patterns.”
—Chris Corrigan, The myth of managed culture change

This is why process tools like those included in The Power of Participation are so important. Imposed, top down culture change regimes attempt to force people to do things differently, a process that Chris describes as “cruel and violent”. Participation process tools that allow people to safely explore interacting in new ways allow organizations to transform through the resulting emergent changes that interaction tools facilitate and support.

Image attribution: Animated gif excerpt from “Lawyers in Love” by Jackson Browne

Why Conferences That Work continually evolve

Design evolution

Our basic ideas about design have been based on Newton, says Tim [Brown of Ideo]. Design assumes the ability to predict the future based on the present. We need to think more like Darwin: design as an evolutionary process. Design is more about emergence, never finished…
—From a blog post by David Weinberger about a talk given by Tim Brown of Ideo

The marketing pioneer John Wanamaker is reported to have said that half the money spent on advertising is wasted; the trouble is we don’t know which half. Similarly, there are probably fundamental principals underlying good design of human meeting process. The trouble is, we don’t know what they are (beware anyone who claims they have a comprehensive list).

I believe that only by experimenting like scientists and artists might we possibly discover over time what works and what doesn’t. And that’s why my attempt to share what I learned about running participant-driven events between 1992 and 2009 in my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love is a frozen-in-time snapshot of the “best” process I knew up to the moment the ninth manuscript draft went to the printer. Thirty months later, the supplement I started writing within a few months of publication remains an ever-changing work as I continue to experiment and learn at every event I’m involved with.[1. Consequently, printed books are poor vehicles for this kind of information, so the supplement will probably be published as a continually updated ebook of some kind—but that’s another story.]

As a recovering ex-physicist, I love Tim Brown’s description of the old paradigm of design as a Newtonian knowable. Thinking of design, in my case meeting and conference design, as something that is emergent, responsive, and continually evolving is a humbling and yet wonderfully freeing lens to view my work.

Photo attribution: Flickr user raneko