Change management has been a very popular topic in management literature. The overwhelming share of books that provide practical guidance on how to manage change are usually based on the assumption of a linear, step based change process. However, looking into real live organizations reveals a totally different picture. Change processes are more like a ride in a rollercoaster than a linear sequence of well-structured process steps.
Change is a much more complex phenomenon than popular management literature might indicate. Aaron C.T. Smith and Fiona M. Graetz identified nine different change philosophies in their book “Philosophies of Organizational Change”. We’d like to introduce some of them as an alternative to the traditional change models in our blog. The first one we’ll have a look at is change from a cultural perspective.
Organizational culture is characterized by intangible structure like rituals, beliefs, norms and values
Over time every organization creates its unique organizational culture. It is characterized by rather intangible structures such as rituals, values, norms, stories and beliefs. During daily business those intangible structures guide and influence the way how we act, behave and decide. However, they don’t determine our actions but define what is expected and accepted in certain situations. One example how an organization culture shapes daily business is the way how meetings take place. Meetings that chronically start too late could be seen as daily business in one organization but as serious deviation in another.
Organizational culture can’t be changed but influenced
Managing change from a cultural point of view can be achieved by addressing those intangible structures. This can be done implicitly by behaving in a different way than the prevailing norms and values would have encouraged. When those deviations are supported and encouraged by key people in the organization (e.g. management, change agents), the changed behaviour will eventually have an impact on the organizational culture. As a consequence, a different form of behaviour is encouraged in certain situations. Which type of behaviour is encouraged or sanctioned depends finally on how the organization and its members observe the changed behaviour. There is no linear cause-effect relationship between action and culture. Factors like the hierarchical position, informal networks and the magnitude of the deviation among others influence the way how culture changes. This implicit approach to cultural change can be supported by reflecting on those intangible structures. If they are addressed in meetings, workshops or day-to-day discussions, the change process will be reinforced.
Linear change processes are rather an exception than the rule. Managing change successfully requires a broader understanding of this complex topic. The cultural dimension of organizations is one element of a holistic and thus more realistic change management approach we’d like to propose in our blog series.
Markus is one of the founders of CQ Net - Management skills for everyone!. He holds a Master and Doctoral Degree from the Technical University of Vienna and a MSc in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, University of London. Being a dedicated "Knowledge Worker", Markus has continued his career with various private sector assignments in the management consulting, automotive and mechanical engineering industry.