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Transforming an organisation’s DNA: moving beyond recycling to genuine culture change

Helen Charles-Edwards

Never has the demand been so great for organisational transparency, flexibility and integrity. Our insight on what it takes to achieve genuine culture change.

A quick search on Amazon.com shows over 8000 books on organisational culture, a statistic which reflects the complexity of one of the most elusive questions that has long confronted business leaders: How to create a healthy culture which enables employees, the organisation, and those it serves to thrive? This question is particularly significant today as organisations find themselves needing to look harder than ever at their working cultures. Never have the demands been so great from employees, customers, regulators and society at large for organisational transparency, flexibility and integrity. And then there is the ‘healthy’ bottom line. So, culture is complex and culture is key to success.

What is culture?

An organisation’s culture is hard to describe, frequently expressed in terms of how the organisation feels (“it feels lethargic around here”), and often brought to life through use of metaphor (“this organisation is like a slow and heavy oil tanker”). At EiSR our understanding is that the culture of the organisation is a result of the interplay between the organisation’s ‘structures’ (tangible aspects such as the physical environment and iconography, structures and hierarchies, roles and boundaries, processes and procedures, and available resources, to name but a few) and ‘dynamics’ (the acceptable and preferred ways of thinking, behaving and relating, i.e. ‘how we do things around here’). Of course, there is also the wider context, i.e. the ever-changing external environment, applying pressure on organisations in ways that are intensifying and becoming harder to anticipate (1).

Culture deepens over time as the structures develop to reinforce the dynamics and vice versa. In this way, we can see how culture is preserved and passed on from one generation to the next, and why it is such a challenge to change it. It involves changing the organisation’s DNA and then sustaining that change. It takes us to the fundamentals of an organisation.

So, we cannot change culture by paying attention only to culture – it requires a focus on the whole system within its context, and it necessitates a shift in mindset at all levels.

Recycling vs Transformation

Culture change programmes often struggle because they fail to address all aspects that are required to create sustainable change. At EiSR we distinguish between two kinds of change – change within the system vs. change of the system. The former approaches cultural change as a move from A to B. It often falls into the trap of ‘It looks good so it must work’ and it does change to people. The focus is on ‘hard’ issues such as structural change to corporate governance, and on removing ‘troublesome individuals’ who don’t fit the mould. Through this approach the fundamental assumptions about the organisation do not change and the usual patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are carried forward into the new situation. Consequently, old problems tend to re-emerge as underlying issues remain un-addressed, and change cynicism starts to build. Nothing really changes – we are simply RECYCLING.

The second approach to change recognises that organisations are dynamic and open systems. Efforts to change culture therefore focus across every level of the system from the Board to the frontline, and to customers, suppliers and other relevant stakeholders. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ aspects are addressed in tandem, to better understand how they influence each other. Instead of labelling individuals as ‘troublesome’, we ask – ‘what can they tell us about what is and isn’t considered acceptable around here, and how do these things help or hinder us?’. Fundamental assumptions are surfaced and challenged in a way that permanently shifts the frame of reference. Things cannot go back to the way they used to be – this is TRANSFORMATION.

The hidden drivers of culture

Part of the challenge of culture change is that so much of what’s at play is invisible and it is often the hidden aspects of organisational life that undermine the most well thought-through strategies. So, surfacing what lies out of awareness is critical to the leap of understanding required to create sustainable culture change. This information is held in the people.

Employees become acclimatised to the unspoken rules as, over time, they work out what it takes to get on and fit in, to the point at which these rules are no longer visible. If we are unable to surface these hidden aspects of the culture, then they will persist. We need to recognise what’s really going on so we can focus the change effort on unhelpful aspects of the culture, and recognise what works well. We don’t have to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’.

Unlocking transformation

So what does it take to change an organisation’s DNA and avoid the pitfalls of ‘recycling’? Here are our offerings drawn from what experience tells us is required to enable genuine culture change:

  1. A focus on the whole system: Changing culture means gathering data to develop new insight across all aspects of the organisational system (figure 1), exploring how they support and/or get in the way of the achievement of the organisation’s ambitions. And it requires attention across all levels of the system: from individual experiences to relationships between roles, departments and groups, as well as interactions with external parties such as customers, suppliers & regulators.

    Figure 1: The Organisational System

    2. Space for dialogue: Change is not the outcome of a beautifully crafted, linear project plan! It comes through genuine dialogue, which requires space and permission for everyone to participate in exploring their experiences in relation to the problems that the organisation is grappling with. And this involves bravery - it means leaning into the contradictions, ambiguities and tensions that exist, rather than trying to ‘smooth things over’ and avoid discomfort. Because it is through the process of sharing and exploring different perspectives that we can surface new questions, connections and shared insight. And through seeing things differently, we start to act differently.

    3. Paying attention to the change process: We tend to talk about culture in abstract terms, as though it’s something separate from ourselves. But an organisation’s culture gets inside every employee to a greater or lesser extent. As consultants, we recognise that the client’s culture is present in our every interaction with them, so we pay attention to our experience and offer our observations as data. In this way, we seek to help raise the client’s awareness of the patterns that exist in the culture and invite curiosity about their purpose, so that clear choices can be made about doing things differently.

Genuinely changing a culture is a significant challenge. It requires working beyond a new set of values launched across the business, and entails bravery and openness to examine ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’. It requires the willingness and determination of leaders to lean into this process, particularly at its most messy when the invitation to fall into old and comfortable ways is greatest. It requires permission for the whole system to be involved in an approach that places genuine dialogue at its heart. And, fundamentally, it requires the capacity to use the change process – i.e. doing things differently – as a way of modelling the change we wish to create.

These ideas about Culture come from Eric Berne (The Structures and Dynamics of Organizations and Groups, Grove Press, New York, 1963), along with Rosemary Napper’s fresh perspective on his theories (see chapter ‘The individual in context: How do I fit in around here?’ in the book ‘Life Scripts’, edited by R. Erskin, London: Karnac Books Ltd, 2010)

Helen Charles-Edwards

[email protected]

Helen leads our Organisation Development practice, and has over 15 years’ experience in Organisation Development, Learning and Transformation.

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