Does Culture eat (change) Strategy for breakfast?

This blog is adapted from a posting to a change managers group where the title question was asked.  I thought it an important question, and one worth responding to in full.  

Maturana and Varela, in their book “The Tree of Knowledge” make a very strong case that knowledge exists between people, that it is neither in the individual nor in the society.  We are not skilled at recognising the non-tangible.  Our current way of approaching knowledge is to think that if it isn’t material, like a brain or a social organism, then it doesn’t exist.  So the notion that knowledge exists in some kind of “field” that is independent is very much – well..  counter-cultural.   But for those who want to throw materialist scientism at me, please consider what is responsible for a magnetic field (yes I know it’s a magnet, but what determines the shape?).

So does culture exist in “reality”?   Well that would depend on what you think reality to be.   Does “weather” exist in “reality”?    We all know that there is rain, snow, heat, wind.  These are objective and measurable.  But by rigid definitions meteorology cannot be a science because weather is not objective.  It’s a superimposed pattern.  Organisational culture is also a superimposed pattern – a way of describing habits, shared values, accepted belief systems and behaviours.

So where do these patterns derive from?   And what brings about change?   I see this as critical to the success of a change initiative.   Some people seem to think that successful change is a “people problem”.  If it doesn’t work it is because we haven’t either persuaded people or coerced them into doing the right thing.  Others seem to think that it is a “process problem” – that we have not provided the right kinds of structure, or rules, or support systems.    Then there are some who would regard success and failure as indicative of good or bad leadership, inadequate buy-in from the top, or that the leaders themselves will not change their behaviour to align with the new ways.

In my view it’s a people, systems and leadership problem.   I don’t subscribe at all to John Kelliher’s view that “the world remains the same and nothing has changed”.   If that were true then we would still all be living in tribal systems with elder leadership and ancestral traditions.   Or we would all live as in the time of King John, with feuding barons and feudal peasants.  Or perhaps we would have the hierarchies and rules of Jane Austen’s England with its Christian duties and everyone in their place.   Since we don’t, we would have to ask what it is that brings about change from one mode of existence to another, what mode of existence we are in now, and what are the changes taking place that we are attempting to adapt organisations to.

My colleagues and I in the Centre for Human Emergence work with Graves Theory, known also as Spiral Dynamics.  This theory recognises that humans respond to their life conditions with an adaptation of their thinking systems.   It describes just why and how we have shifted in response to increasing numbers and greater complexity (tribal villages to towns to cities, megalopoli and global connectedness).   It shows how the different sets of priority codes in those responses inhabit us as individuals and are embedded in our collective mindsets.  It makes clear the way in which the adaptations are necessary responses to the problems of existence we needed to solve.

So how does that affect us as change agents?   It tells us that there are many kinds of change, depending on what stages the organisation is going through.  This is why one toolkit may be brilliant in one scenario but fail in another.   One size doesn’t fit all.  

It tells us that if the conditions are not changing, then it doesn’t matter what you tell people they should be doing.  They will revert to what is right for the conditions, so no amount of team-building will compensate for a continuance of dictatorial command and control management style.  

It tells us that changing behaviour is not sufficient if the systems themselves are not changing because the process rigidity acts as a defining constraint.    It likewise tells us that changing the systems alone will not work because the systems are representations that arose from the way people think about their roles.   If the people are not changing then the culture will indeed eat the strategy.

This has a great deal to say about “best practice”.   To find best practice we need the overarching perspective which tells us what change is needed, which toolkits will assist that change, what leadership behaviour modifications will need to come about, and what support needs to be given to the people, individually and collectively that supports them in adapting to new life conditions with new thinking systems and priority codes.   So this is what we teach when we develop Spiral Dynamics Change Practitioners.

Now more than ever, these ways of thinking are essential.  The societal change that we are going through is potentially bigger than any before – bigger than the industrial revolution for instance.  This is because the conditions we face combine complexity, scale of connection, speed of interaction, unpredictability, unsustainability and urgency of solution.   All of these pressures face us at a time when we appear to have fewer resources with which to address the problems.    This is happening at every level, from countries down through organisations large and small, and ending with the pressure on our individual choices.   

If we are to define best practice, if we are to meet the challenges of delivering organisations and leaders with the capacity to respond to these challenges then we have to shift our thinking in a big way.  We can’t stay with command and control thinking.  We cannot persist with linear cause and effect analyses.  We are dealing with chaotic, emergent systems giving us waves to surf.  This requires organisations with the flexibility and responsiveness to maintain their balance on a shifting board.   IT needs leaders with the emotional and spiritual intelligence not to have to know everything, and to allow the organisation its own intelligence.  Only when the culture change itself becomes the strategy will we avoid being eaten.


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