Manhattan Bridge under construction-1909

Instilling Values in an Organization Takes Time, So Be Patient

Forrest ChristianChange, Warren Kinston 2 Comments

vOne of the things that always seesms to surprise people who do organizational change projects (and pretty much all IT projects are organizational change projects) is that it takes longer to change things than you thought it would. While you are waiting for things to settle down, you can’t walk away or everything that you brought to them walks out with you.

My best clients have been those that have been so far gone that they really had nothing to lose, and the home offices (what sociologist Michael Kearl has called “Fantasy Island”) were actively distancing itself from the places. Think disaster that any sane person would run from. They were forced into a transformation (we’ll cover this later) by an outsourcing contract that sold them all to CSC or Perot. I noticed that implementing something meant staying long enough that people started asking why you were there. There seemed to be an amnesia that folks got where they would forget the problems that they had during the transformation. Which was invariably ugly. Lots of political fighting. I always designed my processes to use the hatred to further my goals for them, which was to create a stable environment. Animosity rather than hatred, I suppose.

Why do I always think that it won’t take that long?

Perhaps we’re simply naive about the role of consulting and the problems of shifting values. Warren observes the time that it takes to go through the management spiral:

The whole transformation process takes 5-10 years, possibly less if conditions are favourable, longer if not. [Aren’t they always “not”? – EFC] Don’t be disheartened….

It takes so long because values, however useful and obvious, cannot be instilled like pieces of equipment, or new legal requirements or the latest technique. Reflect on the fact that identity change within a person does not normally occur until after about 18 months of full immersion in a new environment. In the arena of culture change, quick fixes are not real.

It all takes time. Time that most of us don’t really want to spend. We’re in a hurry: we already know these things. We’re not the ones going through life upheaval. It takes just as long when it’s us. Which we conveniently forget most of the time.

Warren is a noted psychoanalyst (his articles with Cohen on Primal Repression have been called “landmark” in the field) in addition to his many other accomplishments. He knows what he’s talking about with that 18 months.

What’s interesting is that if you are thinking about it, building and strengthening a dynamic and successful organizational culture so that it can survive is a massive undertaking. Doing it in only 5-10 years is amazingly fast.

Apply this to the current situation in Iraq. Decades of abuse by western powers, abuse by Ba’athists, wars with Iran, the world, and the US-led Coalition, and the internal tensions have left his region awash in nothing much but bad. If we spent some time thinking about it, they could probably build a nation for themselves in just a few years.

Anyway, for organizations, you can go from “Just Get It Done” pragmatism to a dynamical pragmatism in just ten years. That’s not that long.

It takes perseverance. It takes wisdom. It takes self-awareness. It takes autonomy, responsibility and reflection. But it can be done.

Which, surely, is something.

Image Credit: Manhattan Bridge under construction, 1909. Library of Congress collection.

Comments 2

  1. Schein wrote that one cannot understand an organizational culture until one tries to change it.

    Understanding culture is like studying water in an aquarium. You can put your hands into the aquarium and feel the water. When you take your hands out the water runs off. If the aquarium is well maintained, water purified etc, the fish are healthy and fine. If the purifier is clogged and the air supply faltering, the fish are sluggish and unhealthy. There is no way for the fish to understand or change their environment. If one tries to make an instant change of all the water the fish will probably die.

    Instilling values has to start by understanding the values in place. My experience is that it is often useful for the manager to take outside help in trying to understand culture and values. I have participated in many in-depth interviews to do this. Nowadays I use Life Journey Map to get additional perspectives and analysis.

    Once one knows which values are in place the organizational analyst, like a psychoanalyst, has to choose appropriate interventions to achieve wished outcomes. My experience is that there are no standard procedures that work. Manager and consultant needs to have a close collaboration and do the design together. The consultant needs to have at least the same cognitive capacity as the manager.

    Warrens framework in “Software of the mind” is fantastic in understanding what this stuff really is about.

  2. In addition to understanding the cultural values that exist one also needs to be congizant of how to break the undesired ones down and how to instill new values to achieve the desired culture.

    The values are a correlate of the interpretation of the organizational systems and leadership behaviors. Dysfunctional systems equate to dysfunctional behaviors. In order to faciltate change the leader most notably will need to change the systems and will need to employ symbols to have employees tune in to the notion that change is available.

    People’s behaviors are most affected by those systems that equalize and those that differentiate. It is not the intention of the leader, or the systems, that is significant but rather the interpretation of those affected by the leadership and the managerial systems that matters.

    The common interpretation is one that judges the fairness, the trustworthiness, the courage, the care, the respectfullness, and the honesty with which the leader and systems demonstrate in favor of the employees. And, when the common organizational belief is that management does not demonstrate these values it is incredibly difficult to change that interpretation. It requires deploying symbolism, and consistent behaviors by management and managerial systems. Changing the leader can also expedite the change process though human nature is such that it seeks all the evidence that verifies why the current interpretation is valid versus evidence that that interpretation is invalid. I wouldn’t agree that there is no universal recipe that can be applied to facilitate change. Although change needs to be led there also needs to be a compelling reason for considering it. People need to be inspired to follow the change and there is nothing like a revolution built from within that creates the appetite for change.

    It needs to be understood that what needs to change the most is the leadership behaviors. Companies do not, by chance, employ significant numbers of individuals who all possess common, undersired values. Like it or not the leadership behaviors, and the dysfunctional systems employed by these organizations are at the root of the problem. Change will not occur without acknowledgement of the real underlying problem and that problem without exception resides with management.

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