Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Top 5 Ways to Create Real Culture Change

I've been very curious lately about what can effectively (read that: permanently and positively) create culture change. You might think of culture as the relational organism within the structural organization. For example, the U.S. has a government (an organization) but it also has a culture. The culture is born out of the organization and exists within it, but is it's own separate and unique entity. Same goes for a corporation, a school, a family, a get the idea.

So one interesting thing I've learned about culture is that culture inherently resists change...even when that change is for the better and even when the individuals within that culture may want the change to happen. It's as if the culture itself takes on a life and will of its own; it becomes the tiger we grab by the tail and try to move to someplace new. But when you try to do this to a tiger, of course, it attacks. And so does the culture. We get push back, backlash. Dissention. Intractable resistance. Even hate or violence.

Purposefully trying to change a culture is tricky business, especially with our current cultural value for collaborative community. If one voice tries to rise up and tell us all how we should be or what we should be doing, we'll collectively swipe that guy off his pedestal with lightning speed. Unless of course, we collectively believe he is speaking for us...that he is simply reflecting back to us what we are collectively saying as a culture anyway.

So given all that, how do you create authentic culture change?

Here's a quick list of ideas I'm exploring:

Go Viral -- Essentially, this approach involves trying to infect the culture with change in a quiet, positively subversive way. Just as a physical virus gets a foothold in a body by sneaking past the body's defenses, a viral approach to culture change involves "sneaking past" the culture's conscious awareness until its too late for the culture to stop it. A culture will not resist what it's not aware of. The recent Facebook phenomenon happened in this way. It may seem like all of a sudden a few months ago, everyone and their dog decided to join Facebook. But the Facebook creators have been quietly working their viral infection into the cultural mainstream for years now.

Leverage What's Already There -- Find the sub-group within the culture in which the change you're wanting to see happen has already occurred (or is already occurring), and give those people a larger platform to speak from so they can be more effectively heard by the culture as a whole.

Be the Spark -- Or as Ghandi would put it, "Be the change you want to see." This approach is not about "preaching" or persuading others toward a particular change, it's about embodying the change yourself, and letting your example infect others organically.

Enlist the Catalysts -- Find the first adopters, the culture catalysts within your group, and openly invite them to join your cause. This is, in part at least, the approach recommended by The Tipping Point.

Deep Democracy -- This approach, which is beautifully promoted and taught by The Center for Right Relationship, involves creating a curious, open, non-judgmental environment and inviting all the various voices of the culture to step into a conversation together. The very act of increasing the level of awareness in the culture (truly hearing all the voices and perspectives) has the effect of actually changing the culture. Of course, it may or may not shift in the direction you think it should, but generally the shift is always toward something better and more effective.

So I'm curious--how have you used these various approaches to culture change in your own leadership? Which ones do you favor? What are some other approaches that aren't mentioned here?

Feel free to post your thoughts, questions, insights...


Anonymous said...

Good points. But I wonder, what does history teach us about "permanently and positively" creating culture change?

I'm talking about culture change that has its roots a thousand or more years in the past. Surely there are things that we now take for granted, that have become so much a part of the cultural landscape that we don't even recognize them, that would have been unthinkable back in the day.

How did that change happen?

Another question, or point to consider is this - timing.

It seems to me that in our current fast-paced world, where instant gratification seems too slow, we have a hard time taking the long view. We want cultural change and we want it NOW! But that mindset is counterproductive to creating the kind of cultural change you're talking about.

So...what say ye?

Lisa said...

I'm wondering if you've read Andy Crouch's _Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling_. Gateway's artist small group is studying it now. I'm peripherally involved in the group but am trying to read along and am finding it interesting (and certainly relevant to your post today).

Anonymous said...

Great post, Michael!

I think a key piece is changing the organization's underpinning ideology. Since ideology is the glue that holds an organization together, you will likely also be changing the makeup of the "tribe" that buys in to the new ideology.

I believe that, in addition to the catalysts, having a champion -- that passionate voice who devotes their all to evangelizing the new idea -- is critical to successful change. The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman is a fun and insightful read on this kind of change.

And finally, I believe timing impacts real change too. It seems that there is often some kind of shift already taking place before lasting change happens. Sometimes it's a shift in circumstances beyond our control like the current economic state in our country. Or sometimes a gradual (and often scattered) shift already happening in the values or ideology of the group. A tribe just waiting for a leader to define the change vision and rally the troops.

Deb Siverson said...

I have been revisiting the old idea that change within a system poses both risk and opportunity. Those who are more resilient during times of deep change tend to be more optimistic vs. pessimistic, but perhaps more importantly they are able to hold both. They are realistic optimists. Leaders must look at the success factors that create more resilience within systems. This means promoting the behaviors that drive solutions and possabilities (opportunity-oriented)rather than focusing on problems and risks(danger-oriented). Having a bias toward positive thinking is extremely beneficial, especially during times of change! At the same time, we can't throw the "baby out with the bath water." There are issues that must be raised and so the culture must identify ways to invite debate, allow for concerns and fears to be addressed, and ultimately institute a collabortive decision making process. What I find interesting is that research (Daryl Conner)implies that the more the individual is clear about who they are and what their purpose or guiding principals are, the easier it is for them to adapt to a changing environment. So focusing on self-awareness, life purpose, personal fullfillment, etc. actually speeds up the change process and reduces resistance. Not what you see most business organizations focusing on during times of extreme change...

Michael D. Warden said...

Deb, your insight and passion continues to amaze me. :) Thanks!