July 5, 2016 JV

Is your Cultural Change effort catching the flu?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” says my friend, Ben Bradley.  I agree, but how much diversity can it stomach?

We’ve all been there – pressure’s on, business performance needs to improve NOW and it’s up to us to make it happen.  We’d pulled the shiny, technical and process-centric levers already and the changes just won’t stick.  We know the answer, but dealing with it is neither quick nor easy.  We need to focus on the workplace culture.  Now, in a short article like this, I won’t attempt to discuss the shaping of workplace culture.  Rather, I’m focusing on something often neglected – the impact of diversity on said culture.

Before attempting to change it, we need to know what we want the culture to be like.  We need to understand clearly the values, beliefs and norms (behaviours) expected and then model these through a core team of leaders.  It sounds simple, but we all know that it’s not.  One key failing, I believe, is that we neglect to step back and examine the environment within which the culture must exist.  Like hordes of mutant bacteria to a living organism is an excess of diversity gradually being smuggled in through the back door.  And like bacteria, we struggle to see diversity.

We’ve all heard it, I’m sure (and perhaps even said it ourselves?): “why, that’s just intolerant!”  We all need to be prepared to embrace change!  I totally agree – where it does not compromise the core values and beliefs of the culture we’re trying to sustain.  Just like Collins’ and Porras’ “Built to Last” companies, we can drive improvement and change with passion and vigour while preserving the core; but that latter element is the key.

Diversity is an important concept in complexity science.  Innovation often happens at the intersection of schools of thought and diversity in thinking can provide this to an organisation.  It is crucial in breaking pattern entrainment and encourages us to reframe and reconsider current strategy.  However, complexity science also instructs, through Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, that in order to deal properly with the problems generated by diversity, we need a sufficiently large repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced.  Back to the living organism analogy – too many bacteria, mutating too quickly and the system cannot repel the infection.  It becomes weak or may even die.

We are currently living under a tsunami of diversity.  Even the diversity has diversity!  Whether it’s age, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, capability, disability, religion, diet or ideology – just to name a few, every minority group seems to be pushing its barrow with disproportionate strength.  Despite feeling punch-drink, we must be vigilant to preserve the desired culture and this could mean making some politically-incorrect decisions.  The key here is to be absolutely sure about the values, beliefs and norms we want in the culture we are shaping and to keep unwanted elements out.  To do this well, we will need to know WHY we believe what we believe and to stand up for it.  As a wise person (heavily disputed authorship) once said “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything!”

On Thursday 23rd June, we saw a very interesting thing happen in Europe.  England voted to BREXIT the EU.  Many pundits have given their opinion on why.  My two-bob’s worth is that the majority of Brits have decided that they don’t want to see their culture changed any more (than it already has).  Things are very different there now compared to two decades ago and people have said “enough!”

Opening borders is one way of dealing with the entailments of war, but it does come at a cost to national sovereignty, security and individual freedom.  However, I’m not sure that this was the only big reason for BREXIT.  Did you know that the EU bosses in Brussels were planning to outlaw the classic British tea kettle and the toaster in the name of climate change!  These may be minor examples of the “rule from Brussels” but nevertheless, they are symbolic of the general bad taste left in the mouth of established Brits.  Losing their national sovereignty one appliance at a time may have been the straw that broke the British camel’s back.  I trust that the reasons for BREXIT were more substantial than having tea and toast, although these do represent some of England’s more treasured social norms.

We can’t predict what will happen as a result of the BREXIT vote.  We can’t change what’s going on in Europe.  We might even feel that our recent Aussie vote didn’t amount to much either.  However, there is something that we can all do.  We can step back, re-evaluate our core values and beliefs and draw a line in the sand.  Then, like Gandalf to the Belrog, shout out: “You cannot pass!”

Gandalf and Balrog

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