I’d rather be wrong than right. For some time it appears that my thinking about culture has been wrong. It probably explains why I have had little success trying to change it. I still think that seeing culture is an important first step. However, the model about the underlying principles that drive culture is obviously wrong. (The model is presented here and here).

The model is based on the work of Edgar Schein (My mentor Marc Burgauer introduced me to his work). Edgar Schein’s model talks about espoused values and assumptions. I had interpreted this to mean that behaviour in an organisation (in a Karl Weick sense) is driven by the underlying value function of the organisation. To represent the value function, I use the financial definition as it is the most useful and general model that I’m aware of and can be used to model learning. The hypothesis was that if we can change an organisation’s values, the behaviour would change.

Today whilst listening to Charles Duhig’s “The Power of Habit” I realised that my hypothesis was wrong and I had been ignoring the obvious. Culture is not just an expression of an organisation’s values, it is also based on a set of organisational habits.

Imagine an excel spreadsheet where we write some function:

=if(X = Y,”do A”, “do B”).

If X = 10 and Y = 10, we would get the result “do A”. If X = 10 and Y = 11, we would get the result “do B”. Currently X = 10 and Y = 10 which means the function returns “do A”.

Now if we change the excel function to be:

=if(X = 2Y,”do A”, “do B”).

If X = 9 and Y = 9, we would now get the result “do B”.

That was my naive interpretation of culture. All I needed to do was help people see a new way of looking at the world (the phenomenology), a new value function and the behaviour would change.

What I had failed to understand was that most people do not re-evaluate their value function every time they do something. Instead, its as if they copy the Excel Cell and “Paste Value” so that the sell always contains the value “do A”. Either that, or they have turned off automatic calculations and need to press <F9> to update the value in the cell to “do B”.

In “Thinking Fast & Slow”, Daniel Kahneman talks about System One and System Two. System One is automatic whereas System Two is the one that does critical thinking and evaluation. We need system one which is fast and unthinking because system two is slow and takes more effort. In effect, when we encounter a culture, most of it operates in System One and my solution was to engage System Two.

So I’ve broken my model of understanding for culture. I was wrong. My prize is that to understand culture change, I need to know about “habit change”, addiction, CBT, and a bunch of other stuff . If you know of any good resources or other things I need to know, please leave them in a comment.

Today I realised I was wrong. Now I have better chance of a better tomorrow.