Changing Organisational Culture from the Periphery
Organisational Culture is a strange creature. Some people say you cannot change it, you just have to deal with it like the climate zone you live in. Others make the case for “Cultural Engineering” – the controlled development of mindsets, belief systems and ways of relating. Others again advocate for heroic acts of “Transformative Change”: Walk in through the front door, proclaim a new era, introduce a new generative image and watch the old times crumble while you build a new empire on a new narrative. Simple as that? Well, our history books make it look simple because in 4000 years of charted leadership practice we do find hundreds of instances of such transformative change that make an impressive case. What we don’t find are the millions of instances of social change that entered through the back door. If we use the main entrance to proclaim cultural change, we have to make it quite a robust entry. The problem with robust entries is, they come at the price of sensing. There must be a better way.
The first time I heard the Guerilla Gardening metaphor used in the context of organization development was in 2011 at the “oe tag”, an annual OD practitioners’ conference SOCIUS hosts in Berlin. The conference focused on issues of organizational culture and two colleagues, Anne Kerwani and Kerstin Giebel, offered a workshop proposing a subversive approach to cultural development. Rather than changing culture from the top with a great proclamation, their key idea was to look for the peripheral spaces in the organisation and to hatch practical examples of the desired future. I have played and worked with this idea in the last years, got excited and frustrated, and came to be a strong believer in the Guerilla Gardening approach.
Let’s start with the origins of subversive urban development. Here is a step by step guide to Guerilla Gardening:
- Find an uncared-for peripheral piece of land, a wall, a tree – best in your own neighbourhood.
- Decide what you want to plant and check if your choice makes sense. Tough plants and fast growing flowers are a good start.
- It’s more fun together – find partners. Talk to friends and neighbors.
- Build your garden. Possibly you need to bring some fertile soil and definitely water the plants after planting.
- It may be wise to protect your garden from the challenges of city life, possibly with an improvised little fence against dogs and feet.
- Care for your garden with love! Go regularly and water it.
- If things go differently than planned, don’t lose faith! Talk to residents! Most of them will like your action and at least give you moral support. Some may even join you!
I don’t think I even need to translate this little instruction into OD language as it is so obvious.
So what happens then? How does the Guerilla Garden transform the system? There are a number of versions of this process:
Keimform – Lessons from Neo-Marxism
Neo-Marxist Theory has coined the term “Keimform” (seed-form) as a social practice that works within the functional logic or “grammar” of the dominant system, but undermines its social logic or value base. Peer Commons and Share Economies are such examples: they run smoothly within the market logic of supply and demand but they undermine the idea of private ownership of means of production (well, at least they should). If under the condition of a general crisis of the dominant system they come out of their niche, they have the potential to turn into dominant practice – the story is changed. In organisational context, agile models can be described as such “Trojan Horses” as they function under the premise of lean and efficient management while at the same time introducing measures of self-organisation and autonomy (of course, this sword has two edges: it is equally possible that Agile is imported with the motive to strengthen self-management while actually effecting a push towards new performance pressure).
Niche-Regime Interaction – Lessons from Transition Management
Another way to conceptualise the broader impact of local experiments is the Niche-Regime Interaction proposed in Transition Management, a conceptual framework that was developed to describe the transition towards Sustainability widely coined “the great transformation”. The transition management model focuses on three interacting system levels:
- the Landscape Level (Macro: broader trends of society and the relevant system environment),
- the Regime Level (Meso: dominant structures, cultures and established practices of the system) and
- the Niches Level (Mico: experiments and innovative alternative practices within the system underground).
Transition Management assumes that Regimes act with an evolutionary logic, filtering out unsuccessful experiments while gradually selecting and incorporating useful innovations into their existing set of practices. Niches are safe environments in which such innovations can grow, sheltered from the selection process. Pressure from the landscape is the key factor defining how “receptive” (or vulnerable) the regime is to niche innovations (i.e. will the innovation add to, fix, tickle or disrupt the regime?). Moments of high receptiveness are windows of opportunity, in which radical innovations can become drivers of change. When accumulated to a critical mass and aligned across different subsystems, they can transform or even replace the regime (F.W. Geels, J. Schot / Research Policy 36 (2007) 399–417).
The Guerilla Gardening approach can be analysed though the lens of this model as a niche-regime interaction. To be an effective pathway of change, three conditions need to apply:
- The local experiment needs to be sheltered long enough from performance and control pressure to become a coherent new model practice with a “tried and tested” feel.
- The moment of pitching the new practice as a model solution needs to coincide with a window of opportunity (i.e. an established routine doesn’t deliver answers to a new challenge or external pressure)
- The new practice needs to be integrated and accumulated with other innovative practices in order to effect a critical impulse in transforming (at least a part of) the system.
Two Loops – Lessons from Systems Theory
A system change map that fits with the guerrilla gardening idea is Margaret Wheatley’s Two Loop Model developed in the Berkana Institute. The model describes the dynamics and roles in a transition from one system (in Transition Management terms: one “regime”) to another. Wheatley proposes that all systems go through a rise, peak and a decline phase – in larger societal systems this may happen over the course of 250 years, in organisational settings eras marked by a specific paradigm may last just a few years. A system at the top of its lifecycle is maintained by “Stewards”. Underneath the peak (in transition management terms: within the “Niches”), pioneers are stepping out and innovations are born. As these islands get connected and strengthened they may become the seeds of an alternative system. Networking and nourishing roles are relevant in this process. It may coincide with the decline of the old system (as seen in the degeneration of the Roman Empire: not always a pretty sight). If we don’t want the old system to simply collapse and vanish, hospicing and composting roles are needed to harvest. For the transfer of old to new regimes, there needs to be an illuminating role to light the landing grounds of the new system and a transitioning role to guide the move.
In organisations we witness the two loops of transition in times of environmental disruption but also in the crises going along with developmental phase changes. For example, in the transition from the Pioneer to the Collective Phase, the collective impulse forms as a new (sometimes rebellious, sometimes reformist) subculture while the established leadership model may still be strong and in place. The progressive decline of the old and the strengthening of the new are intertwined processes feeding off each other. At some point, when the new model is strong and coherent enough to be trusted, the system is ready to transition.
Case Window 1
The Guerilla Gardening Approach takes patience. When I first applied it, I was so taken by the idea that I expected magic. We introduced the concept to our client, an educational facility with 50 staff suffering from a corporate culture issue around trust and feedback on all levels. The idea was taken – the process of discovering dysfunctional patterns and potential building blocks of a positive future took off with good momentum, then when it got to developing the guerilla gardening initiatives, the process got a little stuck. People were disappointed with the scale of things: a staff lunch, a conflict resolution rep with no formal mandate, a feedback questionnaire to tackle quality gaps – these ideas seemed petty, some of the plants dried up, some were trampled on; and yet, some survived. It was not until much later that we realized how the process had made us all understand the patterns, the difficulties and the visions in the organization much better. A second loop produced richer results. In the third year the organization formulated a new value statement that was not about displaying politically correct buzz words but outlined inherent struggles the team and leadership pledged to work on in a collaborative manner. The culture had changed – not by central proclamation, but by little harmless experiments at its periphery.
Case Window 2
I am sitting in Brighton after a workshop with The Dragonfly, a fluid organisation facilitating social and self-development through creative arts. The tough nut to crack here is the role of the founder who – despite all efforts to create a collective culture – continues to be the heart of things. As usual, the reasons why it is so difficult to transition is not just his change of roles but equally the mixed emotions going along with the challenge of stepping up as a team. Time and again, the interlocking dynamics play out: as long as the leader is leading, the collective has no real need or chance to prove itself. As long as the team is not proven, the leader will not relax into letting go. Everyone sees this and understands this dilemma. And still, there is no easy way to break out of it. This could go on for a long time…
My suggestion here is a guerrilla gardening project: jointly identify and create islands of shared responsibility in peripheral spaces. Play around, learn, connect them and nurture them. When the time has come: illuminate them and facilitate the transition to the collective mode. This transition will require a powerful ritual and a sensitive hospicing, including honouring and acknowledgement of the roles that are ending. It is not a reform project. No one is stepping into anyone else’s shoes. It is a transformation to a new organisation with a new story and new roles.