We often think of the culture of an organisation as ‘the way we do things around here’ or ‘the way things are’. Culture seems to convey some sort of reality – the reality of how things are.
One possibility among many
But just think for a moment about ‘how things are’. Sure, what we see around us in the organisation is, indeed, how things are. But how they are is not the only available option of how things could be.
Think about shopping. Back in the day, going shopping meant walking down to the local corner store and buying your goods. But then it morphed into driving to the shopping mall, going round in circles looking for a parking space, and finally entering this huge building filled with people all looking for goods and the entertainment of ‘going shopping’. And now, increasingly, it means browsing the internet on your phone and buying stuff online.
The point is, ‘how things are’ changes over time as other things that are theoretically possible become reality. How things are one possibility among many, and not necessarily something that ‘has to be like that’.
When you analyse what an organisation is like, what you see may be reality, but it is also the one possibility among others that was selected to become reality. The other possibilities might still be waiting out in the wings somewhere.
Reality and identity
Current reality is, often, a matter of the choices we make – which possibilities we choose to accept, and which we choose to reject. And those we choose to accept become part of our identity. This is a kind of self-supporting system – we choose certain possibilities because they reflect how we see the world, and then those realities shape how we see ourselves. And then they affect how we behave and what happens to us.
There are many examples of this in the real world. Think of Kodak. The company created portable film that meant anyone could carry a camera in their pocket and take shots of aunt Mildred blowing out her birthday candles. But eventually, other possibilities could turn into reality. The irony is, Kodak were the first to develop the digital camera back in 1975, but they chose to ignore it as a viable alternative to film. After all, kodak was all about film, right?
Or think about IBM. Business machines – that was the reality at the forefront of their mind. But they failed to see that another possibility was turning into reality – that the machine wasn’t going to be where the action was. The action was going to be in the software that made the machines useful – something that Bill Gates at Microsoft understood very well.
We could go on, but the point is, reality doesn’t necessarily have to be the way it is. And the way it is, is influenced by how people see themselves.
Culture and reality
So, how are culture and reality connected? Reality is how it is – at least for now – and culture is what we say about how it is. Edgar Schein, the culture guru, recognised that culture says things about ‘how things are’ at 3 levels of embeddedness.
On the surface level, there are things we can see, smell, hear, and touch. You walk into an exclusive shop and you hear someone playing a grand piano, you see marble flooring, crystal chandeliers, and you know what all this says. It says, ‘we are exclusive, expect to pay more, and you are the kind of person who can afford to shop here’. On the other hand, when you go into Kmart, everything you see says, ‘we will save you money. Look at all this good stuff and see how cheap it is. You are a smart shopper’. Everything you can see, hear, smell, and touch tells a story about the store, and about you.
On a more complex level, the story is about what we value. At the expensive store, it’s about valuing quality over quantity, exclusivity over commonplace, style over functionality. At Kmart, it’s about valuing thrift over excess, accessibility over privilege, function over form.
And at the deepest level, culture is about the stories becoming one with the reality in our minds. We believe the stories are so true at the deepest level that we assume everyone else believes them too. They cease being stories to us and just become things we believe to be true. So much so, that they don’t even feel like stories anymore. It’s just how things are.
The point of this is to say that culture supports reality.
If you want to change ‘the way things are’ – to make an alternative possibility a reality – you also need to change the stories about how things are. You need to do this at all 3 levels.
You need to get people to make alternative choices and a powerful way to do that is to control the stories they tell. Control what people know, what they believe, what they value, what they talk about, and how they talk, and you will have some control over the choices they make.
Politicians know this and they do it all the time. So do big companies. And so can you.
Written by Steve Barlow