I attended the HR Summit in Barcelona on 12-14 October 2016, which is a long-standing networking event that brings together suppliers and buyers of HR services. Interspersed amongst the meetings, were a series of practitioner-led sessions and I went to a couple of the sessions that talked about culture change.
What interested me is how culture change is talked about in sessions like this. First, a sense of something that's 'done to' rather than 'done by' people - in other words many culture change programmes are in fact doing the very opposite of what they are intended to do: they are disempowering. Second, that the process of change is quite formulaic and simplifies, or at least attempts to simplify, something that is, in practice, emergent and messy. Third, that the leaders and managers of an organisation are somehow blessed with special powers to make the change happen.
Here's what I mean. To start with, you run a series of focus groups to capture how things are working at the moment and how people are feeling. You then identify a set of values and behaviours that describe how the future will look when the culture has been changed and from which you develop a communication and engagement process. In their way, these communications have a kind of pious, almost cult-like, air about them, exhorting the organisation to adopt its new values and behaviours. Into this mix is often the implementation of an expensive leadership development process targeting weary, and somewhat cynical, middle-management to lead the change.
Approaches like this are popular because of the ways in which they first define the problem - there is a starting point - and then create a sense of action that will take us to an end point. Unfortunately, however seductive such approaches are, this is not how change works. They take little or no account of how an organisation actually works in practice: how people talk and interact with each other and how things get done. If a culture can in fact be changed at all, it emerges from what is already being done and has always been done. It can be observed in the many, many taken-for-granted everyday interactions between people.
Releasing what's already there
A few weeks ago, the reading for the day at my local church was the passage from Luke's Gospel (17: 5-6). This describes a change management problem in which Jesus' disciples ask him to increase their faith. Jesus' response is that if you have faith like the grain of a mustard seed, you could make all kinds of extraordinary things happen.
Whatever your personal beliefs, Jesus is saying something here that is very relevant to how we might approach change in organisations. The disciples plea to Jesus is that if you give us more, (in the biblical example it was faith, but we could replace this with skills and behaviours), we can do our work even better. What's interesting is what happens next. Instead of acceding to their request, he turns the question on its head and points out that it's not more faith that's required but to release what is already within themselves.
Where does this lead us?
Whether your mission is to propagate the Gospel or something else, the point is that instead of seeing culture change as being about fixing something, perhaps we are looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope. Maybe what's needed is to find ways that can enable people within an organisation to work together naturally and the product of which enhances what is already present. This means looking for approaches that are practical and that can create a shared experience and ownership. My hunch is what would emerge from this is greater individual self confidence and a clearer sense of what it means to belong in a given working environment.