Changing Culture

Seeing Culture touched on the phenomenological* aspects of Culture. This post offers a hypothesis on an epistemological* approach to changing culture. For now, I intend to ignore the ontological aspects, or rather “What Culture really is”.

Sense maker is a tool for understanding culture, and identifying weak signals. When it comes to culture there are weak signals, but they are often strong signals according to other cultures as well. This post is based on Dave Snowden’s idea that the way we change culture is create more cultural agents (stories) like “this” and less like that. So how do we create stories like the ones we want? When we talk about cultural change we mean moving the culture in a particular direction. It might mean moving a traditional (or risk averse) culture to an innovation (or risk managed) culture**. I hypothesise that the cultures of organisations naturally tend to move towards risk averse as they scale and the challenge is to move towards risk managed (innovation). We could use Sensemaker to find the stories but I propose a hypothesis that we can create stories based on our ability to see the different cultures. This is a complimentary approach to Sensemaker rather than a competitor. As the opportunity presents itself I will test this hypothesis and it would be great if you could as well (and feed back your results). It will form part of the Cukeup session I will be running in March.

The approach is quite simple.

1. Help managers / leaders to see culture using the behaviours in Seeing Culture. Get the managers to practice and reflect on seeing culture.

2. Once the managers / leaders can see culture, get them to agree on how to address each behaviour. In Cynefin terms, where to add or remove energy. This is to ensure consistency. e.g. When to praise someone privately / publicly. When to rebuke someone privately / publicly. When to coach someone privately / publicly etc.

3. Get the managers / leaders to mine and share the right kind of stories. The difference between this approach and Sensemaker is that we generate lots of options and let the fitness landscape choose which stories propagate. Sense maker is more precise approach to identify the stories with the most agency and impact. The difference is that between a shot gun and a sniper’s rifle… complimentary rather than competing. And to be effective, both should be used. ( I am keen for feedback from experts on Cynefin on this point )

4. Use Sensemaker to scan the culture for impact.

This is a hypothesis I will be testing. Please join me and share results.

More importantly, please tell me where this hypothesis is flawed. I would prefer to fail it early so that I can find and develop another hypothesis.

* – For Dave Snowden’s benefit so that he can see I have actually been listening.

** – People take risks in a risk averse culture. Its called gambling. Individuals and groups in a risk averse culture have an aversion to risk and tries to ignore it or transfers it others.

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About theitriskmanager

A IT programme manager specialising in delivering trading and risk management systems in Investment Banks. I achieve this by focusing on risk rather than cost. A focus on costs can lead to increased costs. View all posts by theitriskmanager

10 responses to “Changing Culture

  • flowchainsensei

    If you would like to clarify your hypothesis, I’d be delighted to point out its flaws. On first reading, there seem to be many.

    – Bob

  • Marc

    Like Bob, I found it difficult to see what you’re asking, as I see a number of hypotheses to reflect on.

    I see a possible 1st hypothesis in how you mention Dave’s idea:
    <>

    I learned that idea as:
    <>

    You seem to focus on the first part, but I think the second part is initially easier. As an example using Dave’s terms: can I do less retrospective coherence and less premature convergence. Or how I think about it: can I defer judgement where I’m not forced to act immediately? I.e. I acknowledge that our capacity to make judgements serves the necessity to act in many situations, e.g. being attacked by a predator, and so we have a mental reflex to judge. I find it hard not to make such reflexive judgements, but I find it less hard not to take my judgement so quickly as sufficient. Dan North’s (I think) “if I’m right, I will still be right in 5 minutes, so let’s listen a bit more” comes to mind. I find it far more difficult to answer what I should be doing more of. Validating interventions is hard, finding invalidation for what I’m already doing is easier.

    The second vague hypothesis I see is:
    <>
    The hypothesis is that we know what stories we want. Can you articulate what stories you want, or meet your needs? Prompts the question: how do we test if a story is something we need more of? Increased scanning by distributed cognition will be key to answer that, so Sensemaker seems a good choice to me.
    As I told you on Twitter, I am uncomfortable with Hofstede. His categorisations portray culture as a set of “either-or” attributes, like a somewhat static landscape, whereas I see culture as fluid and endlessly forming and fragmenting. So at best, using Hofstede, we can take a snapshot or a series of snapshots, but from what I read about his work (I lack the time to retrace my reading from about a year ago), this approach is unhelpful to guide interventions successfully. (If my reading of Hofstede is wrong and it is successfully applied, please tell me!) As I also said, I do find your table much more promising, as it offers markers to check behaviours. But I hesitate drawing conclusions on a underlaying culture, i.e. if you show behaviour X, your culture must be Y. All of this has to be interpreted in context.

    The third hypothesis I see is:
    <>
    I believe that’s true and a consequence of the dynamics in social networks or, as I hope, how such networks behave without deliberate intervention for alignment (aka leadership). In order to align a larger network, individuals also have to volunteer for that alignment, i.e. leadership has to agree to relinquish control. (I believe you agree with that.) Then comes the question, for large networks, is it healthy not to be risk averse overall? Would it be maybe safer to fail if only specific regions of the network are taking risks?

    Finally, I really have a problem with your point 2. You imply the expectation that we can or should be able to exhibit the rational, right behaviour in most situations. That contradicts our nature. In my opinion, the improvement has to come from making a behavioural failure less of a problem, i.e. we have to accept that because we are humans, we fail each other.
    If we accept our shame triggers (become able to withstand the discomfort when confronted with blame/shame/hurt) and we understand that as the result of being human, (i.e. not rational, not always fair, mostly judgemental as reflex), then blaming and shaming reflects the perpetrator’s fear of disconnection from the group – or at least the fear of dropping down the pecking order.

    I am working on this talk for this conference in NY and where it’s leading me is this: culture is “the being” emerging from the interactions in social networks (or culture is the character of a super organism). Hofstede looks at artefacts and we cannot understand a being by looking at what it leaves behind alone, although I agree it’s a good starting point. (Like if we want to observe an elusive animal, knowing where it poops helps.) We need to get to see the network, the super being and its nature, and from that context we can (hopefully) make judgements that lead to better interventions. So far at least, taking that perspective has helped me be more accepting of what happens around me and of myself.

    Cheers, Marc

  • Marc

    Like Bob, I found it difficult to see what you’re asking as I see a number of hypotheses to reflect on.

    I see a possible 1st hypothesis in how you mention Dave’s idea:
    [quote] This post is based on Dave Snowden’s idea that the way we change culture is create more cultural agents (stories) like “this”.[end quote]

    I learned that idea as:
    [quote] More stories like “this” and less stories like “that”. [end quote]

    You seem to focus on the first part, but I think the second part is initially easier. As an example using Dave’s terms: can I do less retrospective coherence and less premature convergence. Or how I think about it: can I defer judgement where I’m not forced to act immediately? I.e. I acknowledge that our capacity to make judgements serves the necessity to act in many situations, e.g. being attacked by a predator, and so we have a mental reflex to judge. I find it hard not to make such reflexive judgements, but I find it less hard not to take my judgement so quickly as sufficient. Dan North’s (I think) “if I’m right, I will still be right in 5 minutes, so let’s listen a bit more” comes to mind. I find it far more difficult to answer what I should be doing more of. Validating interventions is hard, finding invalidation for what I’m already doing is easier.

    The second vague hypothesis I see is:
    [quote] So how do we create stories like the ones we want?. [end quote]

    The hypothesis is that we know what stories we want. Can you articulate what stories you want, or meet your needs? Prompts the question: how do we test if a story is something we need more of? Increased scanning by distributed cognition will be key to answer that, so Sensemaker seems a good choice to me.
    As I told you on Twitter, I am uncomfortable with Hofstede. His categorisations portray culture as a set of “either-or” attributes, like a somewhat static landscape, whereas I see culture as fluid and endlessly forming and fragmenting. So at best, using Hofstede, we can take a snapshot or a series of snapshots, but from what I read about his work (I lack the time to retrace my reading from about a year ago), this approach is unhelpful to guide interventions successfully. (If my reading of Hofstede is wrong and it is successfully applied, please tell me!) As I also said, I do find your table much more promising, as it offers markers to check behaviours. But I hesitate drawing conclusions on a underlaying culture, i.e. if you show behaviour X, your culture must be Y. All of this has to be interpreted in context.

    The third hypothesis I see is:
    [quote] I hypothesise that the cultures of organisations naturally tend to move towards risk averse as they scale and the challenge is to move towards risk managed (innovation). [end quote]
    I believe that’s true and a consequence of the dynamics in social networks or, as I hope, how such networks behave without deliberate intervention for alignment (aka leadership). In order to align a larger network, individuals also have to volunteer for that alignment, i.e. leadership has to agree to relinquish control. (I believe you agree with that.) Then comes the question, for large networks, is it healthy not to be risk averse overall? Would it be maybe safer to fail if only specific regions of the network are taking risks?

    Finally, I really have a problem with your point 2. You imply the expectation that we can or should be able to exhibit the rational, right behaviour in most situations. That contradicts our nature. In my opinion, the improvement has to come from making a behavioural failure less of a problem, i.e. we have to accept that because we are humans, we fail each other.
    If we accept our shame triggers (become able to withstand the discomfort when confronted with blame/shame/hurt) and we understand that as the result of being human, (i.e. not rational, not always fair, mostly judgemental as reflex), then blaming and shaming reflects the perpetrator’s fear of disconnection from the group – or at least the fear of dropping down the pecking order.

    I am working on this talk for this conference in NY and where it’s leading me is this: culture is “the being” emerging from the interactions in social networks (or culture is the character of a super organism). Hofstede looks at artefacts and we cannot understand a being by looking at what it leaves behind alone, although I agree it’s a good starting point. (Like if we want to observe an elusive animal, knowing where it poops helps.) We need to get to see the network, the super being and its nature, and from that context we can (hopefully) make judgements that lead to better interventions. So far at least, taking that perspective has helped me be more accepting of what happens around me and of myself.

    Cheers, Marc

    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Marc

      Thank you for meeting my needs. This comment alone has repaid my investment of time in writing the Culture posts.

      For point one, I have corrected the post.

      If you don’t mind, I will write additional blog posts to clarify my thinking around the points you mention.

      I personally do not think its healthy for any part of a culture to be risk averse. There are two extremes of behaviour in a risk averse culture. First is to ignore or off lay risk on others. The other is to gamble. Risk management requires you to first look for and acknowledge risk, and then adopt a strategy for the risk which at the simplest level might be monitor and do nothing. Falling off the cliff from simple to chaos is either because you’ve ignored the risk or an outside context event. The 2008 credit crunch was a bit of both. A siesmic shift in context that invalidated all of the axioms of finance for a period of time, that could have perhaps been managed.

      I look forward to catching up next week where I will give you a sneak preview on the clarifying posts you’ve inspired me to write. I will attempt to get you author or co-author a post.

  • Dimitar Bakardzhiev

    Regarding Hofstede and probably in his defence…A few definitions of what a culture is:
    1) “Knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” – Sir Edward Taylor, English anthropologist, 1832-1917
    2) “A set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group” & includes art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs – UNESCO 2002
    3) “Collective programming of the minds” – Geert Hofstede
    4) ”Culture is the way in which a group of
    people solves problems” – Trompernaars’ and Hampden-Turner’ model

    What is your definition?

    For a brief introduction of the models of Hofstede & Trompernaars and how it applies to my own country I put together http://www.slideshare.net/dimiterbak/the-impact-of-national-culture

    For application of Hofstede’&Trompernaars’ ideas to agile proctices in my own country I put together http://www.slideshare.net/dimiterbak/bulgarian-culture-and-agile . Here the interesting parts are the dilemmas and since both Marc and Chris are from a different culture ( per Hofstede&Trompernaars) it will be interesting to know your answers.
    I personally did the survey on one Agile meetup in my country and the results matched what Hofstede&Trompernaars would predict.

  • Jamie

    I’ll coment on the stories part…

    Generally my thinking was formed out of how NLP meta model defines nominalisations – that culture in itself doesn’t exist as a thing, it’s the behaviours of people in the organisation that are the root. In my experience, it’s the behaviour of leaders, and specifically the CEO, that creates the root of the culture.

    When a CEO says all of our customers are important and being a customer centric company is our priority, yet implements a new process of charging certain customers say an inactivity fee to make a quick buck and does this without really explaining their reasons for trumping their customer centric priority, then the culture does not become one of customer service, it becomes one of deceit.

    My views somewhat evolved with Dave Snowdon’s description of agency and stories. To me the stories are descriptions of behaviour – past/present behaviour of what has been, or how people want it to have been seen, or they are stories of what will be (or want to be). Such stories are all well and good, you can only reframe the past/future so much but if a mismatch is created between perception and the story, quite a different story gets told. In the above case it is that deceit is ok and a culture is created based on that.

    So if you really want to change, you can’t just tell stories alone, you need to act and have behaviours that make those stories real. Then you get genuine change.

    As an example, at one company (you know well Chris), to tell the story that Product Managers are the single wringable neck and they are accountable for final decisions in their area is a fine story and if told enough it starts to change the culture as people start to behave in that way. However, it’s when the CEOS actually holds that as true and really does delegate decisions, stands by that approach, that it becomes real culture. If they were to start overriding their words with incongruent actions, the actions will have more power and tell new stories.

    • theitriskmanager

      Hi Jamie

      Thank you for the comment. When our words and actions do not match, people will follow our actions rather than our words. We create a high risk situation that we cannot manage. We lose control of the culture.

      When our words and deeds do not match we are ignoring the risk of discovery. Effectively we are gambling that we won’t be found out. From this single thing, we can hypothesis that we are in a risk averse culture and from that we could guess that there is a high power distance where managers tell subordinates what to do rather than working with them. This then leads to people hiding bad news from management. We are now close to the cliff.

  • tonyjoyce

    I’m afraid that I lost the thread at “[you ] can create more agents (stories).” At best, what we managers can do is observe the stories, which is to say deeply listen to the narrative and discover things that are different from our ‘instinct’ (aka confirmation bias). We then have a somewhat priveledged ability, by virtue of position and controls, to, as Dave describes it, amplify or modulate thde next-generation of stories that are told. It is an indirect connection, and frequently a long and haphazard process that many do not have much patience for. Thus it is a rare skill, and some luck, to work for a manager who understands how to make or change culture.

    • theitriskmanager

      There is an urban legend that on their first day at work at Berkshire Hathaway a new trader lost $10 million. They went to Warren Buffet to tender his resignation as he expected him to want his resignation. Warren Buffet was confused and asked the trader why he thought he would want him to leave when he had spent $10 million on his training.

      To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson threw a huge two day party for all of his staff and their families. He spent the entire time at the gate greeting each employee personally and thanking them for their help in making the company a success. This was a story that the driver who took me to Heathrow told me in 1993.

      And you tell me that managers and leaders cannot create stories of great agency.

      My goal is to help organisations. My goal is not to follow the strict teachings and processes of Cognitive Edge. I do however find the teachings of Dave to be a great inspiration and help as I try to help organisations.

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