Empowering a new culture to emerge in organisations

“Yes we need the whole organisation to become more collaborative, agile and innovative, but I want our executives to make the final decision on who gets budget to try things.”

I’ve consulted with a few different organisations in the past couple of years. Some government department teams, some small start-up sized teams, and some global organisations. Everywhere I go around the world, people want to learn about design thinking skills, collaboration & consensus building skills, non-hierarchical management, the ability to navigate and lead in complexity with authenticity. These are fantastic skills to build in this century. We will face unprecedented changes as a global human community in the years to come, so I’m delighted to help some people transition their behaviours, attitudes and skills towards resilience & responsiveness.

This is not straight forward work. People resist change within our institutions as much as they resist changes in our society, if not more. Compare communication through heavily designed slide decks replaced by quick chat feeds, or a detailed planning timeline versus a well noted initial hypothesis to iterate from — these cultural differences may as well be on the other side of a mountain range. Mostly we are all unaware of our resistance to change. We have every intention to evolve, but learning is hard. Especially when it necessitates recognising you might have once been right, but now your hard earned expertise is the very thing that’s letting you down. So, I have compassion for every person pushing their own boundaries as they navigate and lead change. It is these inner battles that draw lines of irony in our behaviour. Lines of irony look like co-creation in one meeting and coercion in another because in one space you feel threatened and the other you don’t. This is the territory of culture change work. This means you cannot simply come into an organisation knowing the answer or knowing the best course of action. “Best” is context sensitive, and context awareness teaches you how to get good results.

After an online call recently, I made a cup of tea and thought about what I had just been experiencing. I’ve never worked in a large consulting company where they train you in “The Way” to problem solve for clients. I’ve mostly built organisations, worked in social-outcome focused companies with friends, and focussed on creating as much positive social & environmental impact I could manage. So, in my consulting I am providing input from a place of lived experience, from trial and error, and the best practices I’ve discovered as breakthroughs. I am weaving participatory design into community development, sculpting innovation work streams into teams running careful experiments, and hosting groups through Theory U. This feels genuine to me, and although I am a structured thinker, there is no single approach for each engagement. Or is there?

Standing in my kitchen and thinking it through, I noticed that regardless of whether I’m running training workshops, introducing new technology platforms, coaching new leadership styles, recommending specific process improvements or facilitating whole workflows in groups, there are some phases which reappear each time. These phases are relational. They describe the type of interactions that take place over time and how the role of the consultant/ facilitator/culture catalyst changes and evolves. The phases do not address content or ideas, but rather where to put your attention. Here is my expression of these phases. I believe that if I skip one, the rest will be much less effective. I want to share this to support others who I know are working hard to help amazing organisations transform their culture, structure and practices. Let’s learn together how to best serve brave organisations that want to change.


(0) Expectation setting & mutual understanding

The sales process itself is part of the work. From the outset, get focussed on coming into shared understanding. What does the client need, rather than what you want to sell them? What do they actually mean when they say “more innovative” and is there some deeper need they’re hinting at? This is the moment to talk about what’s hurting, what the biggest possibilities are and how a consultant can help. It’s also the most creative part of the process — you can think big together. You can generate options and articulate a scope that brings the best out. It’s also the hardest part because it’s a negotiation and you want to build a relationship and not let numbers get in the way, yet you have to be really clear about timelines and money and hold that gracefully. What will you do? What will you not do? Decide together.


(1) Trust and relational understanding

When you get involved in the work, and all systems are go, it feels like time to prove yourself and take action. But, it’s actually time to listen well and help people feel heard. Let go of the fear of underperforming. You will underperform (compared to your potential) if you get into solutions too soon. Listen to every view point. Listen to the person who hired you, their senior and their junior and everyone else who touches what you’re working on. Better yet, get permission for this to be explicitly a listening/researching phase. There are two things to listen for, and two goals: how people are feeling, and what actually needs to be done. You want most people you’re interconnected to in the organisation to feel heard by you and trust that your comments & thinking will incorporate their perspective going forward. The time invested in one-on-one coffees, calls and also group check-ins about the initiative/issue will contribute to the development of a trusting and exciting atmosphere. Slowly, you will build a three-dimensional view of what this organisation is ready to do together.


(2) Institutional context / system awareness

Through your listening, you probably built a foggy mental picture of “how things work around here”. This can be worth drawing or writing down to help build this picture with others. But don’t solidify it — gain an understanding of why things are working like this. What happened a year ago that made the organisational structure take this shape? What was the personality of the founding team and how does that still show up today in the way leadership relates to staff? With your new social capital you can also test the edges of the conversation. Bring up something you’re noticing that you think is a key issue that no ones’ talking about and see what the reaction is. Do they see it too? Or is it not appropriate (yet) to work with that edge? Initially, the questions you’ll ask in your workflow will be basic. Over time, try to find the most powerful questions you can ask. “Who makes decisions about hiring, firing & promotions?” “Tell me a story of how a conflict was handled recently” “How are we holding ourselves accountable to work by the values we’re espousing to others?”


(3) Power, influence flows and barriers

When ever I hear all the voices in a system, I am always confronted by the pain and frustration I hear from those who don’t have the power to change the barriers/ceilings upon their work. This is not always the same as who has less authority in the organisational structure diagram. Simultaneously, people with more power are juggling very real confusion about who they can delegate to or trust with more power, without having to micromanage. Some people in organisations can use their intuition every day, no matter who it affects when they change course. And others are stuck catching dropped balls or re-orienting their workflow again to cater to the latest insight. Often there is a reason some people are more senior than others, and sometimes despite their deservedness of authority, the way they conduct their form of leadership can be punishing to those around them. As you learn about how people feel and about what people need to achieve, pay attention to who is doing emotional labour and interpretive labour. Who has to guess what someone else is thinking in order to do their work? Who doesn’t feel valued? Who is the person said to be showing initiative when they’re following their nose, when other’s might be considered to be off task? I have begun to incorporate a phase of this work which is explicitly about working with those with less power to build their confidence and identify new strategies for contributing their best gifts to the teams they’re part of. These conversations focus on how they can choose to interact with their colleagues differently, and kick start a new dynamic. Change processes require leadership from everyone, so this focus on igniting the agency of people affected by change is a key success factor. Importantly, remember who has authority in the organisation and maintain an open and clear communication channel with them throughout. Working with power issues can make the people with power feel betrayed or undermined, so find a neutral identity to help you speak with integrity to people in all the different situations.


(4) Collaboratively generating actionable interventions

With trust, ideas, empowered agents of change and a timeline to meet, it’s time to get a group together. Help the group see the issues and opportunities ahead and around them. Take people through mini-version of the journey you have been through yourself. Reflect back to the group what they have brought up within the process so far. Summarise, without coming to a conclusion yourself. Create a space to allow the stakeholder groups in the organisation to articulate with freshness some key changes they’re ready to make based on their new understanding of what needs to be done. This should feel enlivening and the only force you need to apply to this moment is pressure to crystallise and clearly describe what it is that as a group we’re going to try to change together. And how we will start & continue to develop that together over time.


(5) Pushing a new concept forward from a place of understanding

As you move into action, start pushing your insights into the conversation more actively. The group is activated, they trust you, they’re in motion. It’s okay to bring boundary pushing concepts to the table. You have done the research, you know the vision and the group has mandated themselves to realise it. You can be an inspiration to them if you can bring fresh thinking, actionable optimism and pragmatic ambition into the room continuously, even as it gets challenging and their attempts to change things get slowed by emerging issues. Work with the willingness of the group to make strong recommendations based on what you think should change. Re-iterate the most powerful suggestions that the group has made to each other in the past and remind them that those ideas are possible now. As you move forward, continue to work on the process that you’re all working in. Keep talking about barriers to adopting new ways of working and hold the change agents inside the organisation fiercely accountable to their vision.


(6) Get alongside the implementation of the changes

You are not just a facilitator here. Once people have momentum — get in motion with them. Take responsibility for the delivery of some of the new work that has emerged. Change processes generate a huge new work load — people have to deliver the same outcomes they always had to, and do their change process work around the edges. Take some of the load — its what you’re here to do. Scope the type of details you get into, as you cannot change it all. Join or create a working group which focusses on changing one specific part of the organisation. At the same time, maintain high-level alignment between all change agents. Hold regular spaces to talk through and refine or continuously improve what everyone is trying out.


A simple process in a bigger picture

I like to think that this approach is not only how we might shift the cultural ecosystems within organisations, but also towns, sectors and other groups of people. I’m not saying this is the most elegant model for social innovation — I’m saying it’s a blueprint for organisational change phases which hints at the same ingredients needed for kickstarting wider systems change. As we support organised groups to shift they way they’re organising, it will help us build the necessary skills to facilitate a wider cultural shift in society. Together, let’s strengthen our ability to help people make that shift.