Identity and culture. Learning how organisations change and how they resist it.

Change is a difficult thing. It requires a vision and action. It’s more than just a new logo and some smarter chairs in the office. Organisations are made up of physical environments (their offices, meeting rooms and cafes), virtual environments (intranets, email, social spaces) and culture (people, history, vision and so on). It’s easy to change the chairs, move office, repaint the door, but harder to change people, build a common history, move towards your vision and effect change.

Although, interestingly, change does sometimes need the environment to change in order to gain momentum. There is a link between physical environments, virtual environments and people, not always clear, not always causal, but there nonetheless.

Creating a new brand and identity will not change what the organisation is, it won’t necessarily change what people think about the organisation, but it may change how people think about themselves, which is a great foundation for effecting wider change.

The relationship between people and their job is a complex one. At one level, it pays the bills, but at another level, it’s self affirming, it’s a cornerstone of how we define ourselves: ‘i’m a teacher’, ‘i’m an engineer’, ‘i’m unemployed’. People put a lot of themselves into work. It’s often the place where we live, learn and change the most. People feel conflict at work and, occasionally, pride in their work, pride in what they do and pride in what can be achieved. Or maybe not. Maybe people feel frustrated, constrained, tired, stale and insignificant. How you feel about work impacts on not only how you feel in the workplace, it impacts on how you feel at home and how you interact in virtual spaces.

Change takes place over time, and you have to start by defining vision and then driving in momentum and energy. Identity sits at the heart of this, and by changing the organisation’s identity, you can start to effect change in the organisation itself. Creating a new logo or website will not change the perception of other people, or at least, it is not guaranteed to do so, but it may change how we feel about ourselves.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently in different creative and collaborative environments, in business incubators, start up companies and consultancies. Whilst some conform to stereotypes of modern, funky, businesses, with bean bags, white walls and glass, they do tend to feel vibrant and energetic. Some are formal, with steel, glass and computers, others informal, like the artists collective in Bristol, but they often share a sense of identity and purpose, defined partly by their physical spaces, partly by their shared goals and partly by the ownership of those goals by individuals.

Organisations can learn from these collectives and incubators. We can understand the links between environment and identity, understand the different energies that come from having highly transient communities (common in startups and artistic spaces) versus highly static and experienced communities (less agile? More experienced?). They are not ‘either/or’ models. It’s possible to create spaces for flexibility in even the most staid organisation. Creating pockets of experimentation can lead to pockets of excellence and then pockets of pride, which can drive organisational change from the inside out.

Identity and culture are not defined by the colour of the walls, the quality of the website or the age and experience of the people, but they are constrained by these things. Introducing variety, change and energy into any of these areas can impact upon the others.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Challenge, Change, Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Identity and culture. Learning how organisations change and how they resist it.

  1. Chris Wall says:

    I’ve worked on 6 or 7 enterprise-wide attempts at culture change. Some have been more successful than others, but none of them ever seem to have lived up to the hype that published their launches. It’s always left me a little muddled, wondering why this was so, because on some of those efforts, I worked with some really brilliant people.

    Then I read the book Switch (by Chip and Dan Heath; you can download the first chapter of the book that lays out their framework for change here: It’s changed the way I think about these sorts of initiatives because, in retrospect, all of those culture change initiatives that left me wondering, “Why isn’t this working as well as it should?” failed to address the 800 pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room: developing a desire to change in the people targeted by the change initiative.

    It’s kind of like the old joke about how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb (just one, but the light bulb has to want to change). Or the old expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

    The book offers up a number of models for developing a desire to change in the people who comprise an enterprise.

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