Culture to create change

Our favourite phrase for 2012? We demand culture change

In the UK there has been well documented outcry for a change of culture in so many of our systems – our financial system, our media, our police and our political system.

If we want culture change, we have to change our culture


David Cameron, speaking at the Bank of England’s Financial Stability Report a week or so ago said;

“British people are crying out for a return to good old-fashioned banking…..That’s why the governor is so in favour of changing culture at the banks, and so am I.”

Marvelous, so what’s the plan?

…deafening silence.

This stuff is very easy to say. And it’s even easier to find the people who we think need to change. But frankly, it turns out there is much less thinking about how we are actually going to do it.

For those of us who work in government, in think tanks, are trying to build new markets, or work in social and environmental change, this means we really need to buck up our ideas and do some good thinking about how we create the conditions where culture change can happen.

So what is culture anyway?

David Brooks in his excellent book The Social Animal describes culture as;

‘a collection of habits, practices, beliefs, arguments and tensions that regulate and guide human life’.

He argues that cultures are emergent systems and that from the actions of millions of individuals certain regularities emerge. Once these habits arise, future individuals adopt them unconsciously.

So this is what we’re aiming for then. We want millions of people to have ‘better’ beliefs, with stronger arguments, who take actions that align with what they believe in and who practice being different regularly. Easy.

Why is culture change generally not happening?

We can’t accelerate behaviour change, until we create the spaces and projects in which people can practice.

At the moment the market is swamped with breakfast, roundtables, drinks receptions and conferences where the problems in our systems are analyzed and the finger pointed over and over again.

Here’s some recurrent problems I’ve spotted;

  • Events are boring

‘Endurance test’ is the phrase I’d use to describe a lot of these conferences. We all know people can only concentrate for twenty minutes, yet we power right through this threshold. No one enjoys the feeling of being bored. It’s an incredibly draining way to pass a day and we leave never wanting to come back. We know this. We are all human. Yet this principle is uniformly flouted.

  • Missed opportunity for a good conversation

We’ve seen on the list the room is full of interesting people, but we don’t get a chance to speak to any of them. Attendees are left to fend for themselves during lunch and breaks. People shuffle around the coffee, check their phones or talk to people they already know, hoping to stumble across the opportunity to engage with the inspiring people they know are also in the room, but haven’t been introduced to.

  • Public speaking can be intimidating

Almost everyone has some fear of public speaking. Those who don’t can dominate if left unchecked. It’s hard to underestimate how little knowledge and sentiment is missed by hosting a roundtable or a panel session with a few token questions at the end. You spend the whole time trying to get a word in edgeways and leave feeling frustrated.

  • Who’s supporting implementation?

Great ideas are abundant at conferences. Stakeholders who want change attend them and soak them up. But as soon as they get back to their desk, these great ideas die fast. Changing the culture of our existing system is too hard to do on our own. We need to build the communities for people who believe in the same change to hang out in. Places where they can continue the discussion, develop the courage of their convictions, feel like they’re not alone in challenging the status quo and find the support they need to build new parts of our systems.

What’s the solution?

People need the space to connect to their beliefs, a chance to test their arguments and assumptions. They need support over the long-term that gives them the chance to practice a different mode of behaving, different ways of working.

Who’s done this before?

I was inspired by a Bauhaus exhibition I went to recently.

It documented the movement of modernism in 1920’s Berlin after the first world war and the radical designs that emerged from this small group of people.

My dad told me that the Bauhaus were the first to invent the idea of a ‘foundation year’ at art school. The concept that still exists today and is designed to open up people’s minds. To allow students to experience and practice different art forms before they narrow down their focus.

Bauhaus: How to create a culture that creates change

This photo really struck a chord with me, not because its the kind of culture I think we need to evolve to, but rather that this looks like an environment that allowed people to experiment.

By all accounts it was a place to test out their beliefs, arguments and to practice a new way of behaving and doing.

It was a culture that created a lasting change in culture.

And, it was so successful that their ideas still have a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design and typography today.

How does this work in practice?

We need to make our processes for change more experimental and creative and less dry and technical.

Probably the best thing we ever did in The Finance Innovation Lab was to invest heavily in strategy and facilitation support.

We worked with the The Hara Collaborative, who use the Art of Hosting methodology described as;

an emerging set of practices for facilitating group conversations of all sizes, supported by principles that: maximize collective intelligence; welcome and listen to diverse viewpoints; maximize participation and civility; and transform conflict into creative cooperation

We also work with Suki from Shirlaws Business Coaching who has taught us lots of hundreds of useful models from managing the energy in a room, to pulling a clear strategy out of a mass of interconnected ideas and concepts.

Our methodology isn’t perfect, we learn with every new group of people we work with, with every event we host. But the culture we have created in these spaces has been described by participants as a ‘Fully Human Professionalism’. People are able to turn up as individuals, able to admit their weaknesses, find support and think creatively about how to crack big problems.

Its not the only solution, but its one that seems to be working.

My final word

If we are really going to keep calling for culture change, we need to take a look at our own culture and see if it could benefit from a bit of a Bauhaus injection.



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