Category Archives: Organizational Change

The Zen of Cultural Change

It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent. Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government, so openness, transparency, and collaboration are embodied in everything the government does. Ten years from now (if not sooner), government employees shouldn’t even have to wonder if they are open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of the agency ensures that they are.

Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop culture so we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only natural we develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?

There are many academic definitions for culture, but for our purposes, I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come together in a defined group (e.g., IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions (“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events, etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we collectively solve the problems we face every day in our work and life.

Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving is hard and takes a lot of resources and effort. Humans are incredible at problem-solving, but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to solve the same problems repeatedly, so we create things like writing, forms, email, databases, etc. These things embody the solutions we have created so that the next time the same problem shows up, we can solve it without having to think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better solution comes along. And it better be a good solution if it has a chance of displacing the current solution.

Neon sign that says change.

Cultural change is not only possible, but it is necessary. Groups change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. The reason why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that make cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand the culture:

The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture, but you also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these subcultures are easily changed, while others are ingrained in you. And how these subcultures interact to cause the resistance to change. For example, IT folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would rather stay with the software, they have been using for the last 20 years because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.

We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. Imagine a playground in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out in the open field. The setting of boundaries makes us adventurous. We have the safety of the fence we can run to between our adventures. Culture equals safety.

Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. Numerous monasteries sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural groups will often use new technologies or practices to maintain the current culture and its core beliefs. Championing change can be frustrating for a change agent when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.