Leading cultural change

If we could program our way out of this mess, we would have already done so. If changing our organizational culture came through writing a new mission statement, doing a SWOT analysis, developing goals, and determining measurable outcomes, we would have changed our organizational culture multiple times already. If we could change our culture by managing people better or differently, a few power of positive thinking sessions and we’d be done. If it were just a matter of posting new organizational values accompanied by an attitude adjustment, we’d already have accomplished it. Changing an organizational culture happens at a fundamentally different level than the approaches listed above.

An organizational culture represents the meaning proposition of a shared life. Culture is ultimately about the ways that humans organize their lives around meaning. And meaning, at it’s core, is a narrative enterprise. In other words, we live and behave in relation to the authorizing narratives that define our common life. Sometimes these narratives are explicit and public, but often they are implicit and unspoken. This is why, for instance, that a congregation might sharpen its mission statement and align all of its strategic values and still not get any push. There might be a more powerful narrative under the surface that is authorizing non-compliance or apathy or a competing set of behaviors.

So, changing an organizational culture requires new authorizing narratives. And these narratives must be related to the organization’s actual life. Let me give you an example.

I went to high school in West Texas during the time Odessa Permian (Friday Night Lights) was winning state title after state title. When the came to play us, this Oregon boy was stunned by the religious fervor that attended everything they did. The caravan of cars for 180 miles, with shoe polished windows displaying the word “MOJO,” the 240 piece marching band who entered the stadium chanting “mojo, mojo, mojo,” the sea of black and white clad fans who rivaled the numbers of the hometown crowd.

“Mojo” was the chant for the Permian Panthers because it related to some Native American tradition. So our genius of a head coach decided we needed the same. At the Friday pep rally, always a rowdy affair, he told us the legend of Akela, a native word for “Eagle,” our school’s mascot. After telling the story, he tried to get us to chant “Akela, Akela, Akela,” which went over like a lead balloon. No one except the coach and a few embarrassed assistant coaches participated. Why? Because we knew this story was not connected to the reality of the situation. Mojo didn’t “work” because of some mysterious native magic, but because Permian had a history of mastery in blocking and tackling. “Mojo” was expressive of a true story. Akela was being imported as a story to replace the reality of our mediocre football performance. We knew it wasn’t true.

So, how do you change an organizational narrative in a way that is still true to the organization? You don’t do it by importing someone else’s organizational narrative or mimicking their practice. (This is where the discussion around best practices becomes problematic. Best for who?) Rather, it comes by finding and developing the life giving resources within your organization’s experience. This happens two ways. 1. Stories of the past can be re-narrated. The events are the events. But the re-narration of those events can yield new meanings. 2. New experiences can produce new stories that can over time authorize new practices and attitudes. Increasingly, I’m learning that it requires both of these things in tandem, not simply one or the other.

This cultural/narrative aspect is why a primary task of leadership in the midst of adaptive change is “narrating the change.” How is the future we are seeking in keeping with the best aspects of our past? What vision of a hope-filled future is in keeping with the best aspects of our identity? How can we keep telling that future story in such a way that people are willing to tackle tough problems now for the possible benefits that will come? How is what we are doing presently connected to both the best aspects of our past and the future we hope for?

I want to fill out aspects of this narrative aspect of changing an organizational culture in subsequent posts. And add to these temporal aspects some spatial ones.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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