I enjoyed Alex’s post on why “culture change is no change”, though this is a rare occasion on which I don’t wholeheartedly agree with him.
Most [of] the profound and important changes we need to see in public services, we describe as ‘culture changes’… What do we mean by ‘culture change’? Generally, it’s code for a change we don’t think will happen and that we don’t think is our fault when it doesn’t.
Though I can see the point, I don’t think it is right.
Before looking at Alex’s central points and so exploring why I don’t think the above is right, let’s briefly try to answer the following: “What is culture?”
There are many ways or frameworks for defining or understanding culture. McKinsey & Co famously defined it as
How we do things around here.
Schein expands (summarised in The Art of Change Making (pdf), p.131):
Culture is the way that an organisation survives. It is a way of being, believing and feeling that gives consistency and stability. It gives a way of surviving internal and external threat and disruption. It is how a place makes sense of the world. It is how it does things and how it chooses to be seen.
What this gives rise to are three levels of culture: tacit (what is assumed), espoused (what is spoken of) and observable (what is done in practice):
How then, does culture – the way an organisation or system does things, survives and makes sense of the world – manifest itself? One of the more common ways of seeing this is through the Cultural Web (see pp.134-137 of The Art of Change Making). This sees culture as the result of the wonderfully Kafkaesque
The paradigm is
the core beliefs of [an] organisation about themselves. The paradigm and the organisation’s behaviours, actions and thoughts are interlinked, they are a complex web and are inseparable. Every thought, behaviour and action feeds into the paradigm and the paradigm in turn influences every thought and action.
There are then thought to be six cultural influences that inform this paradigm and which are themselves informed by the paradigm (all of which exist at each of the three levels noted by Schein: tacit, espoused, observable).
With these common definitions of culture (and so culture change) in place, we can therefore explore the two central points of Alex’s post.
Just so you can see where I’m going with this, I’ll say now: we’ll see that culture change is precisely the sort of change Alex is rightly looking for.
The first main point in Alex’s post is this:
[I]n reality culture is always, always trumped by the hard levers and incentives in any system.
I think there is a grain of truth in this, but I think it underplays two issues.
The first is that hard levers and incentives themselves are part of the culture. In the Cultural Web they are examples of “Control Systems”, which
are the ways that an organisation controls how things are done, from things such as quality control and financial control, through to reward and punishment… People will behave in ways that they think will please the control system.
That is, what the organisation or system values is what leads to the creation of hard levers or incentives in the first place.
The second issue is that in any complex system the “hard” and the “soft” interact with each other in complex and possibly unknowable ways. (This is true even if you don’t think hard levers and incentives are part of the culture.) What this means is that for successful change to happen we should have both changes to the law, policy and financial flows that govern how systems are structured (the “hard”) and to the culture that governs how/why they work (“soft”).
The second main point in Alex’s post is about power:
Power on the other hand, is not elusive, and rarely dispersed… So next time someone in power suggests a culture change is needed, perhaps the appropriate question is, “[H]ow are you going to give your power to someone else, to start that happening?”
This point and related question about power are exactly right. From the definition of culture, though, we can see that power and power structures are part of the culture of an organisation or system. Or put another way: for power to be moved from one person to another is exactly to require a culture change.
It’s rare for me to disagree with Alex but I hope this post has explained why, on this occasion, I do. To summarise: if people use the phrase “culture change” as code for things they don’t think will happen, I’d suggest they probably don’t understand definitions of culture (at either a system or organisation level), how it manifests itself, and so what culture change might actually entail.