What is needed to change the culture at the place where you are actually working?

At our last Next Culture Work Event, the following question came up again: “How can I inspire more people in my company for the context of New Work?

As my digestion is not working well since Christmas and I am suffering from more or less heavy digestion problems – I don’t want to go into details about that – I get a treatment with useful intestinal bacteria. The prevailing culture of my intestines momentarily has turned out to be not very useful anymore. One could also say that the cultural development even produces negative results. The treatment with good intestinal bacteria shall lead to a cultural shift, so that all members of the systems can again work together to achieve the common goal – the undisturbed absorption of nutrients.

But what has my digestion to do with the future of work? In short: contagious, useful “cultural bacteria or viruses” are one possibility to make a lasting cultural shift. At the same time it is an answer to the question mentioned above. Cultural viruses are even more sustainable in their effectiveness than bacteria because they have the ability to change programs, which would be very useful to achieve a constant cultural transformation. Now I would like to go into the details again, regarding on how you can become a useful cultural virus – or an evolution-accelerator, an edgeworker, a cultural transformer or something similar, if you don’t like the virus metaphor. There are different factors to turn yourself into a cultural virus.

1. Be bold and ready to go first

Culture is something really persisting. Cultural habits and thinking patterns tend to settle themselves deep in our heads and in our behaviour, so that we don’t are aware of it anymore at a certain point. Like computer programs, running silently in the background. Suddenly we notice that our well known habits don’t work anymore the way they did before – and that they perhaps even lead to negative results. But we wouldn’t start to question our cultural behaviour patterns in the first place, but start to try new methods – methods fitting well in our well known culture.

At the moment we are standing at a cultural crossroads. New methods fitting in the well-known culture don’t lead to useful results anymore. Our culture – in the bigger context (society) as well as in the middle sized context (company, organization) has turned out to be not sustainable. That means that mere change processes are not enough to get new results – what we need is a cultural transformation. And there it comes to you! As culture is very persistent and mostly unconscious, it is not so easy to transform it. The prevailing culture offers a certain comfort zone, where the members living in the culture are feeling “safe” – because culture determines the rules of social interaction. It determines for example what is ok within social interactions and what is not ok – what may be considered as possible and what not … Those paradigms are buried deeply within us as so called “memes” (the intellectual equivalent of genes).

If it is your whish that the company you work for transforms into the direction of new work, you may expect resistance. It is comparable with the times when people still believed that the Earth is flat. At that time it was considered as dangerous to go to the edge of the world because you could fall down. At the same time there were already cultural transformers, who claimed that the Earth is not flat but a sphere. And those cultural transformers where not very popular at that time. They needed a lot of courage to explore the edges of the world and then to stand against the crowd. People did not just cheer: “Jippieh, the Earth is not flat but a sphere. Ok, let’s go for an adventure journey!” – on the contrary! But after some time the evidence became so pressing and so obvious, that the new culture took over.

What does that mean? It means that it will be necessary for you to be more courageous than everybody else in the company. It also means that you will have to take more responsibility than the average person in your company. If you feel the longing for cultural transformation and believe that something else is possible and useful for the common goal, then responsibility means, that you accept this longing as a job – even if you don’t know how to do it. Even if initially you have to stand alone against the crowd. People in the well-known culture are afraid to step on new ground – they will not voluntarily go to the edge of the world, to check if they really fall down. Therefore it will be your job to go first – to the edge of the prevailing culture, to find out, what is possible. To find the pressing and obvious evidences to convince the others.

Cultural creatives are ready to go first into new territory and to prepare the way for others!

2. Be aware that there are different typical behaviour patterns during a transformation process

When it comes to transformation there are different behaviour patterns. Not everyone reacts in the same way given the possibility for deep change. That is good to know and you better accept it! The Innovation Adoption Curve from E. Rogers makes it clear:

Rogers_Curve_enAs you have the longing to stir up a transformation process within your company, you probably are one of the 2,5 % innovators – you are a cultural innovator. No wonder if you sometimes feel lonely within your neighbourhood. Then there is a small group, just waiting for somebody to take the first step. They themselves perhaps have no idea how to start or they lack of courage to make the first step. But if somebody goes first, then they are easily inspired and come along. This group is called the early adopters or the first followers.

Then according to Rogers comes NOTHING! He calls it the chasm lying between the first two groups and the next group. This is the point where the inertial mass begins. A part of this mass is called by Rogers the early majority, because they can be easier and earlier motivated to come along than the late majority. But it needs patience, going forward step by step, persistence, success stories, etc. to inspire them and to reduce resistance.

The rest will follow the majority or the newly set circumstances, more than being convinced of the advantages of the change. Especially the laggards are often the negative force during the process, who will continuously try to stand against the transformation.

When you are aware of this fact you know what to look for: you have to look for other innovators and early adopters! Start with these two groups – set them on fire with your inspiration and together start to do concrete little things in a different way. Don’t care about the other groups at the beginning and don’t try to convince them – that is a waste of energy and can lead into resignation.

3. Three is company – Build up a team / a tribe, instead of trying to do it all alone

A possibility to transform culture is to first build up a parallel culture, running within or next to the actual culture. Like Buckminster Fuller once said, it is not about fighting the prevailing system but to create a new system that makes the old one obsolete, e.g. because it is more attractive and more useful. Creating a new culture requires a group of people. As culture determines the rules of social interaction between the members of a society, there are at least 3 people needed to create a (new) culture.

So you need at least two like-minded people, to not only think and talk about a new culture, but to start to live this new culture and to make experiments how this culture could work. Cultural transformation does not work single-handedly! Being the lone wolf and “I have to do it alone” are definitely part of the paradigms of the old culture. How can you find like-minded people within your company, who are as inspired as you are about the idea to create a new working culture? Put a curious-making notice on the bulletin board or in the Intranet, describing your vision and who you are looking for. Organize a meeting and talk about your vision. Be honest about the fact that you don’t know how to do it, but that you are willing to explore it together with others. Be highly contagious!

4. Do passionate experiments

As soon as you have found your adventure team, organize regular meetings. Invent experiments together, which you can try out in your daily working life within your departments, to make first experiences with a culture of New Work and to find out, what works and what doesn’t work. Choose experiments lying outside of your comfort zones, but which are attractive for you to do. Share your experiences during your meetings and regularly invent new experiments.

Consciously consider yourself as a team, experimenting with a New Work approach. Research together questions like:

  • What exactly is our common vision – what is our purpose?
  • How do we organize ourselves?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How do we see and live responsibility within our team?
  • How do we manage to be sustainable?
  • etc.

Give each other honest and authentic feedback about what is working and not working within your team. Make good use of the time you share within the “safe” incubator space of your team and become a germ cell for New Work. From that point also start to do experiments within your departments – perhaps you start to do your department-meetings or project-meetings in a totally different way than before. Expand your experimental radius including other colleagues. Transfer your insights to your daily working world.

5. Create a movement

Sooner or later the colleagues will notice: there is something completely different going on. Interesting! Your results and the results of your fellows will speak for themselves and will differ clearly from other results. Perhaps people are suddenly inspired after a meeting, because you used new meeting technologies and other people notice it. That makes them curious. Curiosity is a good motivator for innovation – in fact it is a better motivation than if innovation has been prescribed by the management. Tell inspiring stories about your experiments and the new results you create and let people feel the fun you all have doing it. Create a legend!

Then create possibilities so that curious colleagues can join in and participate. Like this the circle of inspired people will continue expanding. And at a certain point there will be the necessary momentum and the whole thing will become a movement.

In the following video you can observe, how a movement arises and which phases are necessary to go through. If you look closely you will find all the factors mentioned above.

Risks and side-effects

Sooner or later also the level above you will notice, that „down there“ something is going on. And at that point it depends on whether your company is ready for New Work or not. Actually the results should speak for themselves and your bosses should be excited about what you have achieved in total self-responsibility. They should be interested in learning how you managed to do that. The next step should be to transfer the approach to other departments. That would happen if the company is ready for New Work.

But it could also be, that it is not yet ready or that your bosses consider your activities as a threat. In that case they will probably tell you to stop that nonsense and to continue doing your work. At best, they will let you continue your new approach within your department without butting in. At worst it could happen that they will fire you. That seems a little bit dramatic – but to be honest: if you have come so far as to start a movement, would you be really willing to go back to the old game, just to keep your job? Sorry, but I cannot imagine that.

Mostly the cultural viruses leave the company at this point. They already have experimented so much and gained so much experience regarding New Work, that they start running their own businesses or support companies, which are really ready for New Work, with their transformation. As soon as you are a cultural virus normally there is no turning back for you.

And one last hint: a good treatment against the loneliness of being a cultural transformer is to build up a network with other cultural transformers. There are a lot of them acutally!



P.S. The next meeting of the Next Culture Work cultural transformers is at 30.06.2016 near Munich www.nextculture.work.