Culture is a Pattern

I was meeting with an executive team last week and realized they felt overwhelmed by an impending culture change effort. They had tired it before, with few results, and none of them was eager to dive in again. On the other hand, culture change was exactly what they needed. The pandemic disrupted supply chains and customer expectations. The “great resignation” is challenging their assumptions about recruitment and retention. Personnel exhibit symptoms of trauma and persistent stress. Board members see signs of discord and dissatisfaction. Productivity, customer satisfaction, employee experience and engagement are all suffering. At the same time, their global market expects innovation and agility.

The executive team sees the need for culture change, but they feel powerless to effect it. They don’t trust the tools and approaches of the past. They don’t know what will influence staff in the present, and they are exhausted and dispirited themselves. This is a classical wicked issue—the kind that HSD was created to address. No complete solution is possible, the need is urgent, and the environment shuffles between uncertain and turbulent. The CFO said she felt like she was walking on “nervous ground.”

We will continue to work with them as their system evolves over time, but that day I shared three pieces of advice that seemed to calm the waters and offer some hope.

  1. Culture change is an accumulation of 1,000s of tiny tweaks, not one massive push. Informed by our research in complexity science, we see culture as a pattern. It emerges over time from interactions in a complex adaptive system. Interactions happen in every moment, in all parts and at every level of the system. When any connection changes, the pattern shifts. Some tiny changes may have massive influence. Even if one act seems insignificant, it can become a model and a mirror that resonates and replicates new cultural patterns. Culture change is not an enormous effort, it is a consistent commitment to tiny efforts.
  2. The culture change has already started. Find and feed the emerging patterns for the future. It is always easier to reinforce a pattern that already exists than it is to create a new one from scratch. Every person has been transformed in some way by the events of the past two years. Some have risen to the challenge with grace and courage. They have become their best selves in these difficult and dark times. Those heroes hold the key to what is possible for the future of your community. They are already living the culture you want to create. Find them. Encourage them. Tell their stories.
  3. Don’t just describe the culture you want, create it. No one has time for glossy brochures and high blown language about what might be. Everyone needs, instead, a clear idea of the actions that will generate the culture of the future. Name those actions in clear and powerful language of Simple Rules. Consider the pattern you want to create in your complex cultural system. Identify a few behaviors that would create those patterns. Frame those behaviors in three to seven short, active statements. Those statements—a short set of Simple Rules—become the DNA for the culture of the future. Everyone in the organization commits to following the same set of rules. Each one uses their personal roles and local intelligence to interpret the rules for themselves. When everyone is following the same rules, even if they all make different decisions and take different actions, a coherent and consistent pattern emerges across the community, and the new culture emerges from the old. One of my favorite examples of Simple Rules belongs to Nordstrom’s Department Store: Satisfy the customer. There was no other rule. You can imagine the culture of service that grew into incredible loyalty for customers and staff from this one ridiculously simple rule.

That team of executives left the meeting with some hope and energy for the work ahead. We will support them as they focus on their Simple Rules, share stories of tomorrow’s culture today, and make every interaction a micro-transformation. Over time, they will create the culture in each moment. They will also experience the energy of complex change and build momentum across a system that will continue to transform itself. So, I hope you will consider the power of patterns in complex adaptive systems as you change the culture in your organization or community. Share your stories and help change the culture that shapes us all.

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