Musings on Culture Change, Part 3

January 22, 2013 — Leave A Comment


“Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.” ~ Richard Hooker

I’ll bet you’ve seen those nature shows where a school of fish reshapes itself into a ball when threatened by a predator. Every time I watch a scene like that, I’m mesmerized by it. It’s like this collection of individual life forms somehow transforms itself into a single entity, becoming this cloud of life that moves and reacts to its environment as if it were one creature rather than a collection of hundreds. How do they do that? How does this balled-up life form decide where to go, how to move in response to a predatory threat? It looks for all the world like those hundreds of fish are operating with one mind. But where is that mind?

Culture ~ whether in an organization, city, or nation ~ operates in much the same mysterious way. Culture is at play whenever a collection of individuals operate according to a kind of shared mind, one that dictates specific rules of engagement and a way of looking at the world that are universally understood, even though they may have never been explicitly stated.

We can probably all point to examples of this from our families growing up. What was one of the rules of behavior that you and your siblings knew was critically important in your family, even though your parents never spoke of it directly? In my family it was school performance. I can’t recall my parents ever directly pressuring me or my siblings to make good grades at school, but somehow we all knew that being an A student was a family non-negotiable. The proof is in our behavior. Of the three of us kids, one graduated high school as valedictorian, another as salutatorian, and a third graduated with high honors.

It’s also pretty easy to see examples of cultural influence at work. One organization I work with has a perpetual struggle with meetings running long. Even when they assign a timekeeper to help teams stay with the agenda and keep things moving along, they still seem incapable of holding to their agreements around time. This isn’t about a lack of time-management skills. It’s about their culture. There is some value (probably unnamed) at play in that culture that is overruling their commitment to time management. (Culture eats strategy for breakfast, remember?) Until the cultural value is named and openly, honestly discussed by the organization, no amount of strategy will change anything.

For any church or organization, culture is where things like values and mission live. That’s why achieving a specific mission or living according to a specific set of values has less to do with strategy and more (much more) to do with cultivating a culture that actively embodies the mission and values. The unfortunate reality is that many leaders do not understand this, and so keep trying (unsuccessfully) to find a strategic solution to a cultural problem. And even many of those who do recognize the distinction try to force culture change by persuading, imploring, or otherwise admonishing the culture to become what the leader envisions it should be. But this rarely, if ever, works, and more often has the exact opposite effect from what the leader desires.

For a leader to inspire authentic culture change, he or she must do three things:

  1. Facilitate a process to help the culture see itself as it is right now. (More on this next week.)
  2. Enlist (not force!) the members of the culture toward a more compelling cultural vision via an open honest conversation about who we are and who we want to be.
  3. Fully embody the new culture he or she wants everyone to live. Go first.

I’m outta time for now. 🙁 More in Part 4.

Michael Warden

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