organisational culture

What might change, when an organisation changes?

What might change, when an organisation changes?

When you think about the changes you want to bring about, to make your organisation or sector more sustainable, what do you see changing? Do you have blind spots about where change might happen, and how deep or how obvious it will be?
 
Edgar Schein’s Three Levels of Culture model is a great way of understanding what might change, as an organisation or other entity changes. It’s useful to think very widely about the kinds of things that might change – or need to change – to get us on track for sustainable development.

Managing the change to sustainability

Managing the change to sustainability

Croner-i’s “Environment” magazine asked me to share key insights from Change Management for Sustainable Development. That article is out now, in the spring edition (no. 74).

 You can download it here.

 Tldr:

  • Understand where your organisation is now…

The 'do they really mean it?' test

The 'do they really mean it?' test

Sustainability initiatives! Low-carbon innovation; gender equality; getting rid of single-use plastics; well-being.... In-house sustainability change makers and the consultants who help them are forever devising and launching initiatives and campaigns to get colleagues to do things differently. Sometimes colleagues take them up whole-heartedly and they develop a life of their own. Sometimes you get feeling people are sighing and rolling their eyes, waiting for it to fade away. What makes the difference?

Ritual and joining an established group

Yesterday I was at a family funeral. The rite was one I'm only a little familiar with: enough to follow, but not enough to know what was coming next. It's made me reflect on the rituals - acknowledged and unnoticed - that we perpetuate in groups and professions. So comforting and affirming for those in the know. Provoking anxiety, confusion or ridicule in the newcomer.

There was a written 'order of service', which included the information that no doubt seemed useful to those who wrote it - the things that would be different, or special, about the event. The things that would be the same as they always are, were not included. Which makes sense if you are already part of the group and you know what those things are, and means you are very lost if you are there for the first time.

What do we take the time to explain to people who are new to our way of working? What do we consider so self-evident that we don't think explanation is needed? How do we respond when someone asks or seems lost?

What do we open our minds to when we first join a group? What do we do to show we are interested and curious, yet a bit lost? What do we attack, without having the patience to observe and attempt to understand?

How we do things round here

Organisational culture. Where to begin? Like behaviour change and values, it's one of those phenomena of human experience that promises to unlock sustainability if you can only work out how to harness it, but tantalises by just not being reducible to simple rules or mechanistic predictions.

The canny editorial team over at The Environmentalist invited me to write a two-part feature to introduce IEMA members to this scotch mist, and I love a challenge like that.  Even though I know the result will be partial and full of holes, I'd love to help people begin to navigate this treacherous territory with a few useful landmarks.

So I had a go, and part one is available here and part two here.

Essential sources

The research and planning process for the article was fun too, once I'd decided to focus right down on something manageable. (After all, this was for a 1,400 word feature, not a thesis.)

I chose to re-read Edgar Schein's classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. The resulting mind map of notes is two A4 sheets of close tiny handwriting. I also finally got round to properly reading William Bridges' Character of Organisations, which I was introduced to by Lindsey Colbourne (I still have your copy Lindsey!) when she was helping Sciencewise think about designing approaches to public dialogue which match the organisational cultures found in Whitehall Departments and government agencies.  Her insightful background research report on the "Departmental Dialogue Index" is here and the summary paper containing the diagnostic tool is here.

Schein's book is wonderful for its stories. I enjoyed being alongside him as a reader, as he gradually realises how little he understands the organisations he is exploring. He opens himself up to not knowing, thereby allowing himself to hear the new (more accurate) interpretations of the behaviours and artefacts.  There's something of the anthropologist about him, understanding organisations by being present in them as a participant observer.

Bridges' approach starts from a framework more commonly used to understand the individual - the MBTI's contrasting pairs of judging / perceiving; sensing / intuition; extraversion / introversion; thinking / feeling.  He takes this and looks at how it might manifest in organisations.

This is arguably a less intellectually rigorous approach than Schein's. I definitely find myself drawn to the open-endedness and ambiguity of the anthropologist. But there is also something attractively pragmatic in Bridges' work. And the book contains a questionnaire that readers can use to assess an organisation - good for people (and organisations) which like applied theory.

Sharing TUI Travel's journey

Many thanks to Rosie Bristow and Sarah Holloway who took the time to talk to me about how understanding organisational culture within TUI Travel helped them to tailor their sustainability work to be more effective.  As well as reading about this in my article, you can see the enthusiastic buy-in they've generated here.

 

It's success, Jim, but not as we know it: sixth characteristic

"Success may be different..." is perhaps the most exciting of the challenges for me, because I have seen such different reactions to it.

Sixth of six

This post is the final one in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Success may look different to what you expected

The sixth characteristic challenge is that you just don't know what you're going to end up with.  And it would be a mistake to try to predict it too precisely, which makes project planners and budget holders in some kinds of organisations very twitchy indeed.

The thing is, that even when you can see the potential for collaborative advantage, this may be quite uncertain, speculative, indirect or long-term.  Because it depends on finding willing and able collaborators who want the same (or complementary) outcomes.  And as we have seen in the other characteristic challenges decisions are shared. Which means that you can't predict, let alone control, what the successful collaboration will look like.

This applies to the what, the how and the who.

An open mind, but not an empty mind

Until you've reached agreement with at least one other organisation or group about what you want to achieve, you don't know what you'll agree on.  Until you've decided together how to work together, you don't know how you'll work together.  And until you've agreed who to work with - and they've agree to work with you and each other - you won't know who you'll end up working with.  Of course, have some intelligent and well-informed guesses or working assumptions - don't have an empty mind.  But avoid being trapped by your research and early planning - maintain an open mind.

Messy play

Collaboration is an intrinsically ‘messy’ and uncertain process as the outcomes and solutions tend to shift in the light of unfolding events and opportunities.  Even once you have agreed what you want to achieve, you will still need to share decision-making about what the action is you'll take together to achieve the outcomes you want.

Sounds a bit risky....

Some organisations just hate this.  Their internal culture is one of clear prioritisation of resources, delivering against targets, husbanding their budgets carefully and not having a penny to spare for things which can't be guaranteed to deliver.  They won't release funds until the deliverables have been planned in.  They see the staff time invested in the speculative early stages of collaboration as unjustifiable, when there are urgent priorities which are part of the day-job waiting to be completed.  While this is understandable - especially if public money is being spent under political scrutiny - it is very problematic when much bigger gains might be made through collaborating.

Organisations with this kind of culture need to judge the level of resources to put into working collaboratively on a particular outcome, and weigh against competing demands on staff time and budgets.

Can't we just make them collaborate?

However eager for collaboration we may be, there will be situations where there just aren’t suitable organisations to collaborate with.  For cultures where wielding power (hierarchical, financial or regulatory) is deeply embedded, this inability to just make others do what you want can be exasperating!  When your senior people see collaboration as the answer, they may get very grumpy if at the quarterly reporting meeting you say "well, we tried, but at the moment no-one else wants to achieve what we want to achieve".

Managers need to accept – and to convey to their staff - that you cannot make people collaborate.  The team may need to learn to see ‘no thanks’ as a positive outcome: framed as “we agreed with them not to go any further on this”, rather than “that was a failure”.

And keep open to the possibility that you may need to use other ways to achieve the outcomes you want – for example through regulation (if you are a policy-maker or regulator) or incentives – if collaboration does not bear fruit.

A challenge? No, it's the whole point!

And then there are some organisations and sectors for whom the uncertainty inherent in collaboration is exactly the point.  Working with researchers and academics at Sheffield University's exciting Crucible collaboration workshop recently, there were a few baffled looks when I introduced this characteristic challenge.  People didn't see it negatively at all.  Not knowing in advance what you're going to find out and how you're going to go about it is precisely the reason why collaboration is interesting and worthwhile for these people.

What can you do?

If you are choosing a team to work collaboratively, look for people with flexibility and who are happy to live with rapid change and sudden uncertainty.

Progress is unpredictable – so don’t expect staff to predict it. Managers need to give people authority, amidst this uncertainty, to make medium-term plans.  This includes managing the tension which arises between setting budgets or spending plans with not knowing when the costs of work will become clear.

Six characteristics

So there we have it: the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working. I'd love to hear about any more, and about your own experience of making collaboration work despite - or even because of - these characteristics.