To the extent that it is discernible at all, culture is held in our lived experience, framed by the architectural structures of the built environment, our behavioural and codified rituals, our systems of individual and shared belief, imbued tokens of value and the trade thereof, and hierarchies of both formal and visible, and social and implicit, power, and the totems that regulate it.
Or to put it another way: culture is everywhere and everything, whilst being nothing but a dream and some stuff.
If we had to choose a single word to describe culture, it would possibly be ‘violence’, not because the behaviours of culture are violent (although they may be), but rather because culture is held as a struggle at the intersection of systems. Tribal systems, formal systems, belief systems, knowledge systems, and specifically systems of power.
In a very real sense, culture is forged in fire.
This is important if we wish to have meaningful conversations about cultural change, or ‘transformation’ as we are wont to call it within organisations.
We can have an evolution of culture, but the process may be destructive, chaotic, and to large extent negotiated, consensual, permitted, and unclear.
If we focus too much on what we want, we may miss the arrival of what we have deserved.
Culture does hold respect, but not necessarily nostalgia: rather like art, it references the other, but builds upon it.
This is particularly pertinent when cultures (or rather the formal and social structures that underpin them) merge. Sometimes we want both the old and the new. But that is like asking for a revolution with solid foundations.
There must be processes of fracture, of dissolution, of mosaic laying, of negotiation, of prototyping and rehearsal, of remembrance and remorse, and celebration.
In a very real sense, culture must die and culture must be reborn.
We are often naive in our narrative descriptions of what ‘culture’ is: we talk about ‘learning culture’ as a thing, when perhaps we mean a subset of ‘learning what i tell you’, or ‘believing what i believe’.
It is always possible to learn within a culture, but what we may end up learning is how to survive within culture.
There are quite practical implications of our underlying understanding of how culture is forged, and both the violent destruction and aspects of creation, of the new. We must give space and have understanding of what needs to be done.
And whilst there is much talk of time, of oil tankers and momentum, of difficulty, the acts of engagement with, evolution of, and creation around culture may happen remarkably fast.
Indeed: they may happen far faster than the planning that takes place at a strategic level.
Often within cultural transformation programmes we still see the over-involvement of legacy Domains like ‘comms’, a function of formal power and an outdated belief that formal stories can outrun social beliefs.
It’s ironic that whilst ‘authenticity’ is deemed the top desired train in leaders, leaders often resort to broadcast models of cultural change.
In some ways we have engineered our own complexity: culture, and change, are not that difficult, provided that we are willing to accept a broader range of outcomes, and an acceptance that culture is an untidy affair.
The most important thing is to be engaged in the discussion: to listen, to be uncertain, and yet to be clear.
To move forward, we must leave certain things behind. You cannot be both the old and the new, and the violence of change must be confronted, and indeed may end up as the fire we use in the forge.