Engage with any consultant and you’re likely to learn that your organization needs a culture change. Culture grows rotten over time? Either a union’s insidiously trying to get more for less, or management’s playing that game; opposing parties stalemated pursuing the same end. Perhaps the organization’s moral compass’s gone haywire due to executive avarice. Maybe safety slipped down to Job #2 or #3 from its prescribed Job #1 position. The possibilities seem endless. Pick your favorite reason, then get down to changing.

I can’t pick up The Washington Post without stumbling into waves of culture change recommendations: Congress “needs a culture change,” so does Metro, and The Pentagon, not to mention (which means I’m mentioning) the IRS, The DOE, DHS, and, of course, The State Department. Private companies, public organizations, even non-profits, seem in dire need of this most curious kind of change; or so say the editorial boards, attorneys general, independent watchdogs, blue ribbon committees, and every freaking inspector general in the DMV.

What do they mean? If I might be so bold as to deign to translate their injunction, they mean they do not have a freaking clue what to do, so they prescribe the absolutely abstract. It’s a stunningly easy sell.

What is culture? Anthropologist Dani Weinberg defined culture as ‘what we do when we don’t think we’re doing anything,’ which seems to position ‘it’ into the realm of the preconscious. How might one go about changing a collective preconscious experience? The standard strategies involve helping people become aware of what they did when they weren’t aware of doing anything so that they might recognize that they might have chosen differently had they been aware at the time that they were doing something. Huh? Yup, retroactive mindfulness.

Culture change seems to insist upon someone knowing better and encouraging/coercing/educating/enforcing a ‘better’ way. Better for whom? In practice, culture change promotes a ‘one best way’ focus and reinforces a ‘father knows best’ perspective. Even cleverly engaged in, it treads dangerously close to the edge of ego disqualification, even idiot-making. Telling another what they really should have done might batter them into a form of submission, but it seems an off brand form of enlightenment.

We might be completely enthralled in the preconscious, which is probably just another way of saying that we do not get to be in charge of what we do before we notice we’re doing anything. Revisiting past unawareness might, for a time, bring anyone into closer scrutiny, tip-toeing into the next engagement, but that heightened awareness brings little in the way of improved performance. The wags insist that nobody can ride a bicycle and think about how to ride it at the same time, and collective performance might fall into that same category of stuff that can only be done masterfully if done mindlessly. The more mindful strategy seems destined to disappoint.

What’s a budding father, who’s supposed to know best, supposed to do? First, the BriefConsultant might encourage a wholesale rejection of the vacuous notion that father, any father, really should know best. This notion never held true in any family I ever saw, with the possible exception of the occasional fictional depictions found in … fiction. In the real world, fathers acknowledge at least some their inherent cluelessness. Don’t they? This small shift, from holding the tenacious belief in a wholly fictional state toward acknowledging how things seem to be for fathers, might be about all of a culture change any organization needs. This doesn’t quite qualify as a wholesale organizational culture change, but might result in something being different, unlike the typical wholesale organizational culture change attempt.

If, indeed, a culture change seems warranted, it’s probably time to change doctors. The diagnosis seems questionable; probably faulty. Often, perhaps usually, the diagnosis of a culture problem resides in the mind of the diagnoser; a mind, for whatever reason, apparently unable to appreciate productive mindlessness for what it provides, and perhaps a mind enthralled by no more than notions of how things really should otta be, but have never actually been. It’s most likely a delusional diagnosis.

In the history of the world so far, delusional diagnoses sell far easier than the non-delusional kind. They ooze hopefulness and encourage the kind of acceptance any evangelical experiences when converting to the one true faith. They seem to short-cycle all the otherwise discomfiting effort required to resolve a difficulty, when they’re only giving them short shrift.

The culture changers of the world usually fail, though most seem able to deflect responsibility back onto the tenacity of the very culture they intended to change. In fact, culture IS tenacious, and perhaps better changed through appreciation than through engineering. In spite of the Best Practice Myth, every organization operates quite differently than every other organization; also quite the same, but the differences seem to be the defining element. Homogenizing always makes more sense on paper than in practice. The distinctions, sometimes derided as culture, make a defining difference, often an unmatchable competitive advantage when appreciated as such. Of course these more annoying elements seem like a sea anchor, dragging down performance, when observed outside of the holistic context within which they actually perform. From within that context, observed with an appreciative eye by someone not convinced of their own observational superiority, they appear more conducive than self-destructive.

Of course nobody’s ever attempted to introduce the kind of changes your organization seems to most desperately need. This might be the primary justification for starting small, and starting with some objective a tad more attractive and definite than ‘culture change.’ Labeling anything ‘culture change’ encourages the most vociferous organizational antibodies to marshal against that change. The disappointed idealist behind the change initiative might label the result resistance and never suspect they created their own worst-case outcome. For the organization, rejection of attempts to ‘change the culture’ amounts to nothing more than self preservation, a first principle with all organisms, including organizations.

So, our father whom art in thrall to the promise of culture change, consider changing yourself first. Step down a peg and back a bit to appreciate the marvelous workings before you with the explicit acceptance that you do not, could not fully understand the organization before you. Perhaps then, the culture so recently reviled might consent to show you how it does change and you can follow a wiser one’s lead.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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