Can you change organizational culture?

What organizational culture might these ladies be brewing? (copyright by PumpkinWayne on Flickr)

More and more leaders understand that the “organizational culture” of their organization can have a major impact on how people work and collaborate, what they aspire to and achieve, whether they stay or leave and finally, on the bottom line (whether you are in the business of saving newborn lives or producing computers).

The automatic reaction to this insight seems to be: Let’s figure out what culture we have, what culture we want and then let’s go fix it. Just like you would fix an inefficiency in the production line. If we don’t know how to do it, we’ll hire an expert and they’ll fix it for us. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) it just doesn’t work that way. The first challenge is finding out what culture you have. Culture in and of itself is not something you can see, touch or even measure. If you don’t want to remain in fluffy-buzzword-land, you have to be more concrete than that and start talking about the expressions of culture, the behaviors, perceptions and emotions of people with regards to specific issues.
 So if you want to change organizational culture, the first task is to clarify with the person who came up with this, what exactly they are talking about, what are concrete examples of “when this happens we tend to do that” that they are not happy with. What would be some concrete storylines they’d be happier with? And once you are at it, in this same clarifying conversation you can explore the concrete actions and interventions they have tried out in the past to get there, what worked, what didn’t, how they assess the reasons for how it went. And when you are done clarifying your mandate with the responsible person, you can check if these observations, frustrations, aspirations and attributions defined by the leadership resonate at all with people on different levels of the organization.
This leads to an important point and that is history. The organizational culture is not just something that happens today but something that is like the famous Chinese hundred year old soup (or was it 1000 years?) where you have a pot on the fire in the middle of the village and people add ingredients every day as they have them available. They also eat every day from it, but never empty the pot completely, so some of this soup may well be 100 or 1000 years old. While you will never be able to extract a single ingredient added 70 years ago, each action taken by/in the organization in the past adds to the organizational culture as you find it today. And you will never get the same rich flavor by pouring out the whole content of the pot, scrubbing it down and preparing an instant soup from a packet.
A lot of people who want to change organizational culture only look at: What are the negative things about the culture we have at the moment, where does it hold us back, what are cultures of other organizations which we would prefer? Looking at your organizational culture with a historical perspective can allow you to understand that each cultural practice was once started with a good reason and if they persist, there has to be a strong reason in the organizational logic why it is still there. Take highly bureaucratic cultures. Often we see them as a pain and an impediment to getting stuff done. But they also provide stability even in situations with high staff turnover, relying on standard procedures frees time and resources to solve non-standard issues and bureaucracy comes with the promise that everyone will be treated following the same rules, no matter their informal networks or personal cunning (now, whether the promise is always fulfilled is a different question).
So to do something about persistent cultural practices which you do want to change, start by asking people with different perspectives about what the drivers behind it’s persistence are: “What are positive effects for the organization, individuals or departments within it or outside actors which come from doing things the way we do them now (give concrete example here)?” “What would who lose and gain if we started doing it this way instead of that?” Digging into this will allow you two things: Reformulate your mission as you understand what should be preserved and what should be changed. And get an idea of who you have to interact with how to get this preservation and change started.
One last thing: Culture is not something you can “make” but rather something that develops and grows. Just as it doesn’t help to pull at a flower to try to make it grow faster. So what I see as most promising is to plant a few seeds, pilot a few changed procedures or behaviors in different corners of the organization, nurture them and see what the effect is. By all means, try to get support from leadership and work on changing incentives and other big picture issues to make change easier for the people who live and create organizational culture every day. But at the same time, experiment very concretely on the ground. Often showing that “it” (whatever it is) can be done in one corner of the organization and supporting “field visits” (any kinds of interactions between those who doubt and those who have achieved it) is the strongest organic approach to culture change.
Interesting further reading:
Steve Denning writes in Forbes Magazine about using leadership, management and power tools to engineer culture change and uses the history of the World Bank as example.
In a much more organic approach, Peter Bregman describes on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network how to use stories to change the culture, even before you change incentives, structures etc.: Do story-worthy things that illustrate your envisioned new culture and let others talk about them. Find others who do story-worthy things and tell those.

We’re all just half-angels

Angle, Devil or what? (copyright by kcmckell on flickr)

Researching public health politics in Africa in the daytime and re-reading Tortilla Flats by Steinbeck at night. And both point from different directions toward my most difficult challenge in trying to understand the world: We are all just half-angels. Most of us want to be good people, or to at least think of ourselves as good people. And we have selfish needs and wants and evil impulses as well. The characters in Tortilla Flats are all charming drinkers who come up with the most twisted arguments for making their selfish behavior sound like they are doing the other person a favor: Everybody knows that money doesn’t make you happy and separates you from your poorer friends, so by not paying rent to their friend Danny they actually save him from this sad and lonely fate…

Now what do these guys have in common with health workers and advocates in Africa? Not much from the first look of it, because the outside observer can easily come to the conclusion that Danny’s friends are the bad people while people who dedicate their lives to health care in Africa must be angels. Steinbeck writes most of his novel from the perspective inside different people’s heads, so you can see how they negotiate their different impulses and how much thought they put into getting what they want AND feeling like good people at the same time. Obviously, it is written in a humorous and exaggerated way. But is it so far from what we all do every day?

When I look back at my first hand experience in and research about health systems in different African countries, I realize that people enter the health professions for a broad mix of reasons, ranging from “saving babies’ lives” to “income”, “power” and “status”. And while most professions carry mixed motivations, in a field like health they are especially obvious, because what you can achieve is so large. Imagine, you can save someone’s live! What a large and gloriously good thing to do. But also: How powerful it makes you, when everyone knows you are the one who can save lives – how tempting to use this power for your own benefit (e.g. by demanding excessive charges or favors). And where there are temptations (call them incentives, if you are an economist), people will give in to them. Not all will give in to the same extent, but very few will completely resist, especially if they know that their behavior will not be sanctioned. At the same time, they will try to keep the self-image of being an ultimately good person. And for many, the result will not be too far from what Danny’s friends do…

But why is this my biggest challenge in understanding the world? Because I love a clear and simple story. I want to be able to have clear feelings and unambiguous answers. My clients like them too, by the way. So I want to be able to say: This system or person is corrupt and not working. And this system or person is not corrupt and working very well. These are the good and these are the bad people, the angels and the devils. But if I delay putting things in boxes labeled “good” and “bad” and instead just allow them to tell me their story and observe what they do, I realize that we are all just half-angels. Yes, I have seen some people with a much larger leaning towards selfless or selfish behavior than others. But another typical character I have met a lot in my research is the powerful person who wears both wings and horns in XXL, the very charismatic, well connected guy (or lady) who achieves far more for “his people” than others in his position would, and, at the same time, lines his pockets with more bribes and favors than anyone else could extract from this position. How am I to think and write about him? What do I recommend? Do we want a smaller person in his position, who achieves less for his people and his own pockets? May we find a full angel, or let’s say a three-quarter one to replace this guy and tilt the scale a bit towards public benefit? Can we change the system, it’s incentives and opportunities in a way that reigns in the selfish behavior better? Or do I just decide, depending on whether I am a cynic or romantic, to close one eye and only see either the wings or the horns and praise or condemn wholeheartedly?

All you ever wanted to know about Agricultural Innovation Systems

Agricultural Innovation by connecting farmers to the world... (copyright by IICD on flickr, SEND Westafrica Program http://www.sendwestafrica.org/west/index.php)

It arrived on my desk yesterday and the paper version is heavy enough that you might use it as a weapon: 1.52 kg (or 657 pages) of looking at Agricultural Innovation Systems from all directions: Examples from the field (from Peru to India), methods for supporting, understanding and researching agricultural innovation from practical and academic perspectives. As the introduction states:

“Although the sourcebook discusses why investments in AIS are becoming more important, it gives its most attention to how specific approaches and practices can foster innovation in a range of contexts. Operationalizing an AIS approach requires a significant effort to collect and synthezise the diverse experiences with AISs.”

“For innovation to occur, interactions among these diverse stakeholders need to be open and to draw upon the most appropriate available knowledge. Aside from a strong capacity in R&D, the ability to innovate is often related to collective action, coordination, the exchange of knowledge among diverse actors, the incentives and resources available to form partnerships and develop businesses, and the conditions that make it possible for farmers or entrepreneurs to use the innovations.”

As you can see, a lot of agricultural innovation relies on the structure and content of multiplex, complex networks. This is why Net-Map is a natural fit for people who want to understand, monitor and support the development of viable agricultural innovation systems.

Agricultural Innovation Systems, an Investment Sourcebook, Part 1 and Part 2.

In case you are not intending to read it back to back… The use of Net-Map to understand Agricultural Innovation Systems is described on pages 593-597 in Part 2.

What’s the next season after (Arab) Spring?

Getting ready for "happily ever after" (copyright by jedimentat44 on flickr)

Getting ready for "happily ever after" (copyright by jedimentat44 on flickr)

Last June I thought a lot about the way that “Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only networks that matter in Arab Spring“. My main prediction was that while the “masses” were extremely powerful in organized regime changes or revolutions in some of the Arab countries, they will have major problems in developing enough leadership and real-world traction to play a role as important in the next step, forming the next governments. Interesting to see how this plays out in Egypt and to look at some of the real world networking strategies that were successful for those who wanted to get into or remain in power. Basically I see two strategies as being highly successful:

  • Knock on every door (bottom-up) and
  • Stay close to your influential friends (top-down)

The two groups that have been highly influential in securing a share of power in Egypt today are the Muslim Brotherhood and the old establishment (with strong representation of the military). Both used long term network building strategies that started long before Spring with a lot of real-world face-to-face interactions. The Muslim Brotherhood, even when it had to work underground, knocked on every door and worked hard at putting their roots down in neighborhoods, with a public face that highlighted their social activities, presenting themselves as your brothers who help you out in tough times.

The generals and other representatives on the other hand put their effort into establishing long lasting elite networks, whose members helped each other increase  the power base, in political and economic terms. Even as an outsider you can safely guess that everybody in this network owes a lot of other “insiders” some favors and that they share a lot of closets with a lot of bodies hidden in them. And the pressure their network has come under through the political changes of the last year will increase this sense of cohesion and the need to stick together against the threats of the outside world. An elite network can be weakened by removing the head and some of the formal power of its members. However, if the elite network members did a good job of positioning allies in all areas of leadership, not just the legislative but also administration, private sector, police and military, the revolutionaries are looking at a long up-hill battle.

In the initial celebrations after the end of the Egyptian regime it seemed to many that this was the ultimate success of the Arab Spring movement in Egypt, that they had achieved their goal. It was a bit like an old school Hollywood movie, that ends when the hero and heroine kiss and get married to live happily ever after. Well, if you are married in the real world (and not a movie), you know that all the fun, challenges and hard work happen after the “I do” and that happily ever after is not a guaranteed reward that you get automatically.

It will be interesting to see the Arab Spring movement grow into their role after the end of the movie. Which of the real networking strategies will they apply to work on their own “happily ever after”? How will they split up in different factions without the uniting force of a simple common enemy?

Making sense and finding meaning

Is it all just in your head? (copyright by TEDxPioneerValley2012 on flickr)Returning from the funeral of a relative I kept thinking about how we deal with the raw and messy experiences live hands us every day, make sense of them and find meaning. How we turn all these sights, interactions, feelings, observations into one coherent story. The death of a loved one is a perfect example for how we do this: While the experience itself is overwhelmingly direct, in most cases we rather quickly turn it into a meaningful story that can be told in a few sentences – whether it is about the lost son who had to find his way home before his father could go, about the man who lived wild and died wild (“He wouldn’t have spent his last years as an invalid” they say), the widow who died on her husband’s birthday or the mother who died in peace after seeing her last child settled in marriage. I am not saying that the bereaved make these stories up, that they are not true. But how do they turn this messy experience into a meaningful story? I am interested in this because it shows how we take complex reality and find those aspects of it that help us make sense. And I do think that we actually “make” sense, it’s not just out there.

This ability that becomes so central in these extreme situations is something that runs in the background all the time, that we use every day, turning our experience into stories. To understand better how that works, let’s look at why two people can go through the same experience and still it means something very different to them? And why are some people so much more inclined to turn their lives into stories, find meaning and lessons in their experience than others?

I think making sense it something that requires two things: Detecting patterns and applying belief systems.

Most of this happens in our unconscious mind so splitting the process up in two distinct clean steps is somewhat artificial. But you will see that it helps us understand better what happens in this grey area between experience and (personal) history.

To turn the thousands of impressions that bombard you in any situation into something that makes sense, you have to reduce the complexity and you do that by picking just a few impressions that fit into a pattern that makes sense to you. You won’t necessarily remember the smell of grandma’s sofa or what the weather was like, but you remember every nice gesture the grumpy old man showed before dying (if that is what your story is going to be about) or every loved one who visited before the old lady passed away. Detecting patterns means you have to find things that are similar to each other and strip away all the details that are different. Some people seem to be hardwired to do this better than others and this influences whether they will see an experience as a singular, detailed messy experience or whether they will reduce it to a story that makes sense and has a certain meaning.

Now, what kind of pattern you look for and how you interpret the patterns you find has a lot to do with your belief systems. Imagine a child dying in an African village. Depending on your belief system you might be looking for patterns in the way your neighbors looked at her to detect evidence of the evil eye. You might look for patterns of sinful behavior of the parents to detect that this death is punishment for the sins of the fathers. You might look for patterns of waterborne diseases or malnutrition to detect a medical reason for the death. Or maybe looking at a larger picture of mortality along tribal, wealth or religious lines will tell you a story about social injustice as a reason for this death.

We make sense and find meaning in our private lives without even being aware of it. But the reason why I write about this here is because I know we (as researchers, program planners and implementers, evaluators etc.) do the same thing in our professional lives as well. And we do it the same way, we use our ability to reduce complex realities into patterns and we do that colored by our belief systems. This process is so intuitive and automatic that we don’t have to be aware of our belief systems and often would even want to believe that what we talk about is “reality” and not some kind of sense that we have created or meaning that we have found. And if someone else finds a different meaning to the same story, we are quick to belief that they didn’t do their homework, made a mistake in their calculation or are trying to manipulate the facts. I think we often get further in understanding what actually happened and also stay more honest, if we admit that all of us seek and interpret patterns based on our own belief systems. And when we disagree about the sense and meaning, it is much more enlightening to look at the underlying belief systems instead of just the resulting story lines.

Net-Map Manual in Portuguese!

I am thrilled to add a Portuguese version of the Net-Map manual to this blog. Please read, share and use it! And tell me about your experience.

Many thanks to

for putting so much work in the translation.