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The Way of Culture Change

I’ve been interested in “culture” for many years – the whole question of how people come to believe what they believe and how they create systems based on those beliefs. I’ve also been interested in how change occurs in systems so developed that people forgot they invented them.

We refer throughout this newsletter to “culture change”. From what I’ve gathered through study and my own experience, both professional and personal, a culture, by nature, does not leap into changes but moves slowly. There’s nothing brusque or quick about culture.

Fernand Braudel, the French historian, calculated that the time it took Europe to move away from using humans—slaves—to pull a cart, and fully replace that practice with domesticated animals, took over one hundred years. It was not an “overnight phenomenon.”

In organizations, like the ones you and I work in, change may be measured in less time, yet we need to be cautious not to assume that it’s simply a matter of decree or public relations. To think that mandating and promoting the benefits of a new culture is enough to guarantee an organization's transformation may be our biggest myth about cultural change.

The key to these overarching and permanent changes lies in the depth of our relationship and the power of our collaboration.

The late American poet, William Stafford, in his poem entitled Ritual to Read to Each Other, refers to the “pattern that others made”.

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

This is a powerful way to think of what happens when relationships and culture are not cultivated. These patterns are the ingrained ways in which you and I react when we deal with the unknown—the unknown often being each other. They are what we retrieve for our own survival: “every man for himself,” or “my group’s goals come first,” or any other common term we hear that calls us to watch out for others, rather than looking into what we may all have in common.

Stafford speaks of these crossroads. These are the moments when we most need to act together, and yet we are so tempted “to save ourselves”:

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

This may be where change must begin, where it has the only chance to stick: choosing to collaborate, seeking a common vision, committing together to behave, individually and with each other, consistent with the ”cultural change” we want to cause.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

All “signals” must be clear. We need to develop practices that our teams and departments will follow. We need these practices for communicating accurately, for managing potential conflicts that prevent us from innovating, and for holding each other true to choosing our new values over our “knee-jerk” reactions.

Maybe this is how the oxen got to pull the carts, and the elephants remain steadfast, holding each other’s tails.

Juan Mobili is a consultant for Roundstone International Inc. He is based in New York and has been a consultant, trainer and instructional designer to Fortune 500 companies for the last sixteen years. He is a long-devoted poet and the director of an international book collection concerned with reconciling personal authenticity and the obligations of business. Juan highly recommends that you read William Stafford’s entire poem found in The Darkness Around Us Is Deep, published 1993 by HarperCollins.

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