Culture Transitions and Transformations

It’s been said by (maybe) Peter Drucker and (definitely) the Internet that culture eats strategy for breakfast. This quote’s truth is solid even if its pedigree is questionable. Our culture shapes us in ways that are profound and often invisible. When I look at how I talk, what I say, and how I express things I see and hear the culture come through.

Culture is shaped by shared history and can be geographical, time-bound, or social, ethnic, religious, professional — you name it. If I share something with others, it’s cultural. Culture matters when designing strategy to promote and understand change. If we aren’t clear what ties people together and how they share values, practices, or beliefs our changes won’t ‘take’.

As many organizations transition to their ‘next‘ it’s worth considering how culture creates and resists change. First, let’s look at what Seth Godin has to say about culture and change.

Seth Godin and Culture Change

What makes culture difficult to change is that it is both designed and emergent. Marketers know how all about shaping culture. Seth Godin has spoken and written about this at length. Seth describes culture is and its power this way:

Culture doesn’t change (much). Elements of human culture have been around for 100,000 years, and it persists. In fact, its persistence is a key attribute of why it works. People like us do things like this.

When writing about the power of marketing to change culture, Godin says:

There are two lessons here. The first is that the easiest thing to do is merely amplify what a culture is already embracing. The second is that real change is cultural change, and you must go about it with the intent to change the culture, not to merely make the easy change, the easy sale.

What Godin is saying that any effort to engage in lasting change is a quest to engage in cultural transformation. That is a design problem so it makes sense we treat it as such.

Strategic Design & Culture Creation

Cense Design Helix

The entire process of design involves following stages that are reflected in the design helix framework. Just as a helix models the DNA of life so does it fit with the DNA of intentional culture.

We begin addressing design problems by noticing things. Our perceptions of what’s going on around us can identify issues or those things that, as Seth Godin mentions, are being amplified. By knowing what we already embrace, we can start to see things like values, beliefs, practices, and systemic structures that shape the culture.

This is where we discover and uncover what kind of possible levers for change we might be able to activate to facilitate change. This process also gets us acquainted with possibilities: what might happen?

The sensemaking process comes next. It helps us to see just how ready, willing, and able we are to change and what we have at our disposal. Sensemaking also helps us to find assets available to us.

The next phases of production and imagination are putting things into action and using a more standard design process just as we would with a product or service. I discussed some of these processes in my conversation with Liz Weaver as part of the Tamarack Institute series on design.

Culture By Psychosocial Design

One of the big questions to ask is: what culture do you want? What do we want our culture to value? To paraphrase Seth Godin: What do people like us do?

This is the strategic design question and it’s the one that organizations struggle with the most. The struggle is not with the question, but the cultural implications of that question. If you are post-pandemic planning you might recognize that you and your team are tired, traumatized, grieving, and angry. You might recognize that a process of healing and rehabilitation has to be undertaken. However, are you prepared to design an organization that acknowledges this and create a culture of wellbeing within your organization?

Are you willing to provide people time and space to heal? What are you willing to give up in pursuit of that?

This is the psychosocial design questions we must ask. Designing healthy workplaces, learning organizations, innovative cultures are not impossible, but they require a willingness to undertake the work. We must also hold up our efforts to scrutiny and evaluation for both accountability and improvement. Change requires designing in process of culture creation to deal with our fears and amplify our hopes.

Doing this might reveal what’s under the clouds like the image above and it might be beautiful.

Helping creation of cultures of health, wellbeing, innovation and performance is something my work focuses on. If you’re struggling with this in your organization, contact me and let’s talk about how I can help you.

Photo by Arran Witheford on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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