A Pocket Guide to Cultural Change

Three Things To Know When Dealing With Culture

How can we successfully cultivate change in our organizations and our ways of working?

How can we invite people to consider change as beneficial, both for the greater good and themselves?

This pocket guide to cultural change summarizes three main concepts that when applied carefully increase the likelihood of successful cultural transformation.

Step 1: Determine the Level of Organizational Consciousness

Organization Consciousness As a Response to Complexity

From a conceptual approach the idea of cultural change is to increase organizational consciousness and responsiveness to better handle complexity and diversity. In this respect, cultural change is a mandatory response to constantly increasing levels of complexity and dynamics that lead to a sense of inability to cope with, e.g. market or social constraints, consumer or employee needs, technology drivers etc.

The intention of this response, i.e. the goal of the change is to increase an organizations ability to manage these drivers in a more versatile, integrative, meaningful and goal-oriented way.

Based on this understanding, the need for cultural change is context-driven. As long as an organization’s means fit a given level of complexity and outside challenge there is no immediate need for change. Of course change can always be driven by the anticipation of a future need to adapt.

As an example, the ongoing new work movement has led to a wide-spread discussion and some notable transformation of former hierarchies into self-organized systems  empowered and driven by collective principles and values. Ultimately, the idea that has led to this transformation has been to better cope with an increased level of complexity of the global economic and social system. This increased level of complexity is resulting from dramatically increased numbers of connections and interactions between mutually dependent actors such as global supply chains, international financial markets, multinational corporations and NGOs etc.

Cultural Change Along Value Systems

Based on the work of Clare W. Graves, cultural change can be understood as an upward movement along a set of different collective value systems, which make up the primary “psycho-social DNA” (Beck & Cowan) of an organization (see picture 1). These value systems are made up from collective believe sets, shared norms and values and their underlying common narratives. These value systems determine individual and collective mindset and behavior. Spiral Dynamics has introduced the notion of cultural development along a spiral oscillating between the two driving forces individual self-expression and growth on one hand and collective belonging on the other hand. Growth and belonging are commonly defined as core human needs.

Value systems are not good or bad as such. Whether they contribute to achieve the mission and desired outcome of an organization depends on the context. Clare Graves’ theory is based on the assumption that value systems are more beneficial in certain contexts and less beneficial in others, e.g. red is beneficial in crisis mode and less beneficial to cultivate trust and empathy.

The integration of healthy expressions of all value systems enables an organization to be prepared to cope with different contexts. In this respect, cultural change goals could be:

  • to limit and reduce rigid paternalistic and ritual-based behaviors (avoid overrating the purple value system)
  • to embrace an action-oriented and success-driven mindset while avoiding overrating ego-driven power-games (acknowledge the benefit of the red and orange value system in a particular context), or
  • to cultivate a holistic perspective including principle-based collaboration, empowerment and trust, and integration of different contributions (value the green and yellow meme). 

Picture 1: the Spiral Dynamics framework, source toolshero.com

Step 2: Determine Individual and Collective Levers

Building on the idea that value systems express individual and collective mindset and behavior, the main levers for cultural change can be derived from the integral work of Ken Wilber. (see picture 2).

Wilber argues that successful cultural change is a result of individual change of mindset (consciousness and willingness to act) and behavior on one hand and structural change on the other hand.

On one hand, lasting change is not possible if an individual builds up mental fences to keep new insights and ideas outside his or her territory due to some perceived disadvantages caused by the change. The notion of value systems can be applied to individuals as well. In this article (German) I introduce Profile Dynamics, a tool that allows us through an online questionnaire to describe individual value systems and driving forces.

On the other hand, if structural problems that have e.g. an urgent effect on one’s job satisfaction are not solved first, there will be no openness to change. In this perspective, culture follows structure and a collective increase in consciousness follows individual openness to change.

The flip side of this is of course that a collective mindset that favors changing perspectives and approaching challenges from different angles allows individuals to be more open to new possibilities as well.

Yuval Noah Harari has demonstrated in his book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind how our ability to collectively adopt stories and fiction has led to the cognitive revolution in humankind and has enabled our species despite our obvious limited individual capabilities to organize ourselves and collaborate on a large-scale basis in order to become as successful as we are.

Hence, there is no clear sequence in applying levers for change.

Rather, Wilber’s four quadrants represent system characteristics. The interdependence and spill-over effects between the four quadrants need to be understood and kept in mind when applying change levers.

Picture 2: Ken Wilber’s integral model, source evstadtakamdemie.de

Only when applied carefully, these levers will allow to deal with resistance and facilitate understanding, willingness and ability to change.

Otherwise, momentum will get lost up to the point where the whole process comes to a hold due to increasing resistance or plain ignorance.

Step 3: Establish Ownership and Apply the U-Process of Social Innovation

All change is dependent on the readiness and commitment of an organization to invest time and energy

  • to truly understand and embrace the as-is culture and recognize its short-falls,
  • to collectively envisage and define the to-be culture and its progress and benefits,
  • to own levers and drive actions, and
  • to face resistance and failure in a constructive and determined way.

To achieve such commitment, on top of the what needs to change (based on Spiral Dynamics), and the how do we conduct the change (based on the integral model) there is a need for a why (personal cause or purpose) and a who(individual identity) that defines the source from which we operate in the change process.

To step beyond superficial symptom curing and truly drive cultural change from one’s source, C. Otto Scharmer in his book Theory-U suggests an operating model consisting of three main competences:

  • open mind to face the truth and new options,
  • open heart to listen to each other and build a common intention, and
  • open will to drive and commit to what needs to be done.

Picture 3: The Theory U model, source: presencing.org

Applying Theory U as a field guide to change results in a series of steps that follow the U-shape as seen in picture 3.

  • Hold the space for co-ownership and collective creativity
  • Observe and attend, suspend judging (Open Mind):
    Where does the organization stand today?
  • Sense and connect (Open Heart):
    What will we need in the future as an organization, as the people that make up the organization?
  • Presencing and crystalizing intention, (Open Will): What do we collectively want to achieve? What for? What is our intention for achieving our goals? Who do we become if we achieve our goals?
  • Prototype and reflect: set-up and train a group of ambassadors that drive agile change from within the organization with head, heart and hand. Where do the prototypes take us?
  • Roll-Out: full scale adaptation of structure and cultural leverage

Summary of Key Points

To summarize and to emphasize one key point of cultural change management here:

There is a need for an integrated perspective on cultural change.

First, cultural change will only be successful if it is crafted with structural and cultural tools. Companies sometimes make the mistake to differentiate work streams that deal with culture from the ones that establish new structural elements, such as processes or organizations. It is likely that as a consequence the interdependencies between different levers are underestimated and not properly treated.

Second, cultural change needs a collective seeding that builds on the fit between outside stimuli (market forces etc.) and inside responses (agility etc.). It is therefor recommended to think of cultural change as an increase in organizational consciousness. This consciousness can be described by an evolution of collective value systems.

Third, this seeding needs to fall on fertile ground of change-minded individuals. Such mindset cannot be enforced. Leaders have to keep people’s basic workplace needs in mind in order to achieve a level of engagement based on which change is deemed beneficial. Leaders then need to invite people to approach change with an open mind, open heart and open will. It takes time and courage to invest in change in such a profound way.