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Organizational culture change: develop rather than design

  • 12 October 2015
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Clients that use the OCAI to assess their current and preferred culture often do this to change or improve their culture. The first question after completing the survey and seeing the culture profiles is: What are the next steps? That’s a valid question. You can outline a rough process of working with the results. But you cannot prescribe exact steps and results. That is hard to accept for many organizations. We’ve become accustomed to planning and control: we’d like to know when the culture will be changed, what the results will be, and how much budget and sessions that will take.

“The old story of change, called change management, no longer functions well. Fortunately, a new story is arising that works creatively with complexity, conflict, and upheaval.” That is the response of Peggy Holman, who has been shaping the field of change since the Mid-70’s. She co-authored the indispensable Change Handbook and wrote “Engaging Emergence - Turning upheaval into opportunity”.

"A new way of change is arising that works creatively with complexity, conflict, and upheaval"

The “new story of change” is applicable to culture change. Many of us have seen how the old story creates an illusion of certainty: the comforting belief that organizational change can be controlled. Many organizational change projects prove this belief false, but some executives find it hard to let go. This makes the new story not easy to “sell” but this new story offers the best approach to change successfully.

Dare you engage with emergence?

All change starts with a disturbance of the status quo. In addition, every system has a drive for coherence and a drive for differentiation. These forces are constantly interacting, mutually influencing each other: disruption, coherence, differentiation. It just happens, and no-one is in charge. The challenge of emergence is: we don’t control it as our systems get more complex. Holman states: “If we don’t work with it, it will work us over.”

Many of us tend to ignore emergence that is not welcome. Maybe you are trying to roll out your change program and move to the next designed step - without responding to a challenge that emerged or new information that may urge you to adjust the time planning. It is not easy with tight time schedules and budgets to be “open” to events that happen underway. Yet, that is exactly what successful change professionals do. Take your eyes off the road map you designed and look at the territory you’re in. It may be different than you expect!

"Fear makes people and organizations want to control and plan. Faith helps them to let go"

It is often difficult to engage emergence. Holman shares several reasons. The seeds of most great ideas are dismissed at first because there are no examples yet. Success can be a hurdle, too. If things are going well small disturbances tend to be marginalized or ignored. It’s also easy to overlook the small things that turn out to be vital. I think the biggest reason to stick to the plan is fear. Fear makes people and organizations want to control and plan. Faith helps them to let go and keep an open mind to see what happens if they engage emergence - instead of imposing their pre-designed plans onto reality.

Recognize this negative emergence?

I know (too) many examples of “negative” emergence such as the negative side-effects of organizational change. Things didn’t work in reality as planned for on paper. Downsizing to make an organization more agile, demoralized employees to the point they came to a standstill (which necessitated more downsizing to avoid bankruptcy). Introducing self-organizing teams to stir innovation and flexibility led to chaos and a brisk return to top-down control. And so on.

In my culture change consulting practice, I work with emergence by focusing on the idea that generates the most energy. I work on a small scale, often within teams. In one huge client organization, we organized dialog days to develop a common culture after their merger (they used to be five separate organizations). What emerged from the dialog days was not so much a common culture, but the feeling to be acknowledged as employees (instead of numbers) and the discovery that “the others” were likable. A lot of resentment against the executive teams who had arranged the merger evaporated. This was not the intended outcome, but a welcome emergent effect that helped this organization accept the change brought along by this merger.

"Engaging emergence only works if the (client) organization is open to this approach"

Engaging emergence only works if the (client) organization is open to this approach. But not everyone embraces the surprises of emergence. Change management entails to control and define the possible outcomes of a change project within certain boundaries. Hire a consultant and let them guide your change project before December 31, with specified goals. Change leadership means setting the direction and starting a journey: try things and follow the energy.

Hence, we didn’t push people during those dialog days to come up with a specified common culture before 5 PM. We let meaningful conversations arise around their different cultures - and the outcome was mutual respect and a willingness to let go of prejudice and start collaborating.

What can you do to engage emergence?

Back to the book: Holman discusses some principles and practices to engage emergence. It's wise to welcome disturbance: Disruption indicates that the normal behavior of a system has been interrupted. If we ignore the disturbance, the chances are that conditions will get worse. If we get curious about it, the disruption could lead to breakthroughs. This attitude is vital and we can practice it everywhere. Instead of immediately judging a disruption as negative, what would happen if we turned on our curiosity?

“Hey, that’s interesting. I thought we needed a common culture - but the employees need to vent before they can do anything else.”

"What would happen if we turned on our curiosity?"

I can choose from two responses: “How annoying! I won’t get the common culture outlined before 5 PM - I will intervene and put them to work according to schedule”. Or: “Interesting - they are so engaged, let’s follow this energy and see where it leads us. They seem to need this... Hmmm...”

What is needed for this practice is to listen to yourself and others, without judgment and with compassion. Whenever you disagree with someone (or with your impulses), practice to ask: “That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me more.”

How to prepare for emergence?

This practice means that you choose possibility and follow the process more than wanting to dictate the outcome. This is what characterizes the most successful culture change projects. They never end up where they expected - but they have changed for the better by following the process. We offer a process of dialog workshops to start working with the culture survey results.

It is required to feel okay with not-knowing all the answers. That is awkward because we are not used to it. As a consultant, clients tend to ask me: What should we do to change toward an innovative culture? They want definitive answers from an expert. I could come up with a generalist list of what typically stirs innovation - but the divine is in the details. The client must find what specifically works for them. My answer is: “I don’t know because I don’t work here. I am here to help facilitate the process of finding an answer. You know your organizational system best - even if you’re not aware of it - so let’s see where the answer is hiding.”

Welcoming upheaval also frees the energy so that it is available to engage. Let’s not suppress upheaval or conflict - let’s welcome it so the energy can flow. Pay attention to where energy is stuck or flowing. This is what I advocate during culture change workshops. Notice who becomes silent, notice who gets annoyed, notice what happens, notice which idea carries energy.

"Are you okay with not-knowing all the answers?"

Again, this is uncommon in traditional organizations. Following energy and welcoming what happens?! The way I practice this during consulting is to alert the group to their process. I share my observation that they all fall silent or avoid eye contact, lean back, return to their mobile phones - and I ask them what is happening. I share my interpretation: Hey, it seems that no-one wants to engage with this topic...? It’s a way to get the issue on the table and get the energy flowing again - or to invite upheaval and welcome it.

Ask more to engage

Ambitious, possibility-oriented questions are attractors for the emergent change process. We are trained by school systems that set the expectation that we are supposed to know the answers. No wonder we resist complex situations in which we could not possibly have the answers. Bold, affirmative questions help us find some answers: What question, if answered, would make a difference in this situation? What can we do together that none of us could do alone? Given what has happened, what is possible now?

“Being open,” is often labeled as a passive quality. In practice, what could be more courageous than stepping in, with all of the energies—dissonant and resonant— and everything that emerges is truly welcomed?

If you want your culture change process to be successful I urge you to keep an open mind. Plan for the process by organizing culture workshops that encourage honest dialog but don’t plan for pre-defined results by 5 P.M.

Don’t turn culture change into a day at the Theme Park where you follow the tourist Park map. Acknowledge culture change as the journey that takes you to a grand destination - if you dare to be a traveler.

Peggy Holman is a Seattle-based author and consultant at

Illustrations by Steven Wright

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