Friday, March 4, 2011

Attending to culture and tradition as part of the change process

I am currently part of a group that has been asked to participate in helping Thanksgiving Point, a non-profit organization housed in Lehi, Utah, to rethink the way its staff and volunteers interact with visitors to their venues.  It has been an interesting project because it has taken us nearly two months to even begin to understand "the problem," as it were, and what it is that we are trying to design or redesign.  In a nutshell, the Thanksgiving Point leadership hopes that we can help them prepare "ambassadors" who can enhance the guest experience by, among other things, facilitating meaningful learning in the various venues, connecting guests with parts of the property they may not be aware of, and putting a "human face" on the Thanksgiving Point experience.

Problems or projects like the one facing Thanksgiving Point are interesting opportunities to see how groups go about facilitating change.  One approach (and the one that is probably typical in organizations) is to roll out a new program, provide training to employees/staff to prepare them to "get in line" and implement the new program, and then to follow-up to make sure things are going as planned.  It is very top-down and directive, which often sounds attractive because it appears to be "clean," simple, and efficient.  Those that employ this approach seem to operate under the assumption that they can tell people what is going to happen, show or teach them about how to make it happen, and then follow up to make sure it is happening.  In higher ed we might see this process at work when a campus institutes a common reading program, adopts the campus-wide use of ePortfolios, or when a college decides that they are "going to do learning communities."  The thinking is that "best practices," "innovations," or other changes can simply be rolled out and that a few years down the road all of the kinks will be worked out and things will be good.  And there are a standard set of methods for facilitating change that flow from this paradigm--orientation meetings, manuals, training workshops, and accountability measures to name a few.

The problem with these types of approaches is that they fail to recognize that change does not occur in a vacuum--each organization has its own "story" that traditions, values, and an embedded culture that dictates the way people speak, think, interact, and make decisions.  So, any change effort must in some way or another address the issue of how to change or modify culture.  

What the group I am on is starting to realize is that what Thanksgiving Point has really asked us to help them with is a change in culture, particularly as it relates to staff-guest interactions.  So, although new employee handbooks, training meetings, or edicts from adminstrative leadership might play a role in the change, they can't be the end.  In fact, a superficial approach to change that only employs these methods is likely to engender resentment and counterculture.

So, how does one go about changing culture?  There don't seem to be any simple processes or steps, but there are a few things that seem to be important.

Vision:  It is nearly impossible to create a new culture when key stakeholders aren't in agreement as to what the new culture will look, sound, or feel like.  The danger here is in getting bogged down trying to negotiate.  Of course, some negotiation, particularly at the top, is critical, bringing too many stakeholders to the table might mean that you never get anywhere.

Visibility:  Images are powerful.  And, what people see when they are on a campus, in a corporate office comples, or walking through a venue communicate a lot about what the organization values.  I was on the campus of Westminster College earlier this week and noticed that their learning goals and mission statement appear all over campus where students will see them.  My guess is that these things have been part of the Westminster culture for some time, but there are new students that arrive on campus every fall and they need to be brought into the culture.  Letting them "see" the culture each day on campus helps.  

Stories:  The stories that are told within an organization help to form, reveal, and shape the culture.  If we want to change culture we need to look at the stories that are told and whether they represent the values, priorities, and traditions we associate with the desired culture.  Sometimes we already have the stories, but just need to find ways to tell them or tell them more effectively.  Other times, we have to go looking for the stories.  And, two types of stories seem useful.  First, "institutional" stories that tell the story of the organization (e.g. its history, defining moments, narratives about key figures/leaders, etc.) and which are told by the organization.  Second, "personal" stories told by individual members of the community but which align with the same messages conveyed by the institutional stories.  Not only are stories more emtionally powerful, but they are often more instructive than are overly-generalized or vague mission statements or statements of purpose.

Relationships:  Much of the culture of a place is transmitted and represented in the interactions that take place between members of the community.  In my first year on my campus as an administrator, I learned more about how to do my job (or how others wanted me to do my job) by the conversations and interactions I had with colleagues, particularly senior colleagues, than any manual or orientation could have ever taught me.  So a cultural shift requires that we examine the way interactions occur among community members, particularly newcomers and what Jean Lave has termed "oldtimers" or veterans.  By identifying the mentors or experts in our organizations who have bought into the culture we want, we can provide opportunities for them to interact in authentic ways with newcomers and invite them into the culture we want.  Over time, this relationship-based approach can have a renewing effect on an organization and keep the culture both rooted in tradition and open to innovation and necessary change.

Gathering Places:  The physical spaces where community members gather can do much to communicate culture.  What is hanging on the walls, the type and layout of the furniture, and most importantly the conversations and activities that take place there, can be used to shape and influence culture.  

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that cultural change is easy or that telling stories or using images is a foolproof means of implementing change.  But, a change that doesn't attend to the cultural context is likely to be short-lived or superficial.

No comments: