James McCalman and David Potter, Leading Culture Change: The Theory and Practice of Successful Organizational Transformation

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There is no shortage of change management books on the market (or in my library!) but new takes on it, given the utter difficulty of successfully implementing change initiatives in the workplace, are always welcome. What I particularly like about this one is the explicit use of tools from the social sciences toolkit (both conceptual models and research methods) and their application to the practice of fostering cultural change in the organization. Of course, my bias as a sociologist shows when I say that. I have so often been asked what was the use of my graduate studies in sociology if I only ended up managing learning and development activities in a for-profit company, as if developing leaders and contributing to organizational change projects was in no way informed by a background in the social sciences. And what is management if not an application of social sciences and psychology?

Given the “messy and unpredictable” nature of change management work, there is no simple recipe that can be applied and rational, linear models emphasizing simplicity are unlikely to work. This is where careful study of the situation using methods developed by the social sciences to study social reality are useful. One has to dig deep to understand the meaning systems that have been embedded in a given social setting to effect lasting cultural change. The authors devote a few chapters to the elements that make up a culture.

They also define organizational development (OD) as the process of managing changes to cultural elements using methodologies from the social and behavioral sciences. The book also contains interesting discussions on power and leadership and on the role of language both in creating and stabilizing culture (or “cultural hegemony”) as well as in changing culture.

The authors make great use of the gardening metaphor, where changing culture starts with planting seeds and creating the right conditions for these seeds to grow. As we all know, the results are not always as expected and this very well reflects the emergent nature of cultural change. We may very well end up with the intended consequences but also with some unintended ones. The authors say:

These cultural seeds may flourish and sprout new cultural themes, or they may fuse with established cultural themes and produce hybrids that continue that continue to preserve established norms but perhaps enhance the positive aspects of these norms, or they may lie dormant and spring into life once fertile cultural conditions emerge that favour their growth and development as new dynamic cultural assumptions, value and ultimately themes. The gardening metaphor is helpful in understanding what cultural change is really all about. It is a form of cultivation. It involves the sowing of symbolic seeds that may or may not take hold. These seeds need the right conditions to mature and it is these same conditions that are required to kill off unwanted cultural constructs. So even when the formal stage of the OD process is supposed to be complete, these symbolic seeds can spring into life as derivatives of the original cultural change work. (p. 218)

The authors present an extensive case study and describe the approach they have taken with their client to effect cultural change. This nicely complements the first half of the book that lays out the theoretical foundations of their approach to cultural change.

In my experience, what I have found to be most problematic is when the predominant culture includes attitudes towards that change that are in and of themselves antithetical to change. In some organizational cultures, strong assumptions are made about the nature of change as being mostly an issue of structure, and it is assumed that implementing the right structure will produce the right cultural changes. In such change projects, new processes and tools are put into place, and no explicit efforts are made to facilitate the culture changes that will help embed these new structures and will generate the desired results, often measured through performance indicators. McCalman and Potter present a solid case for how and why cultural change work must be explicitly planned and managed.

This book has also made me think about how current my knowledge of social science methods is… I still have the basics from when I was a graduate student 25 years ago, but I have not look into any of the current thoughts that may take advantage of new ideas or new tools available. It might be something interesting to dig into.

The book may be quite useful to what the authors call “change managers”, that is, any actors in the organization who intent on effecting change. Paying explicit attention to the cultural aspects of change may not come as naturally as focusing on the structural aspects (new organizational structure and new work processes).

Reference

McCalman, James and David Potter. Leading Culture Change: The Theory and Practice of Successful Organizational Transformation. Kogan Page, London, 2015.

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