Phoning in Culture Change

What is a phone? That seems like a pretty simple question. After all, doesn’t everyone know what a phone is?

Well, yes, in a sense. Pretty much everyone knows what a phone is, but not everyone knows the same thing. For older people, the default image of a phone is a rather bulky object with a handset connected by a cord to a base unit. How far you could walk from the base unit depended on how long your cord was. One of the most striking features of these old phones was that if you positioned the handset correctly, you could make it look like a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.

To many people, however, a phone is a small object that you can put in your pocket and carry with you. You can make calls from anywhere. You don’t need to be in, or even near, your home. These people may not even recognize an old-fashioned phone. Now, you might well be thinking, “Well of course. Young people are used to cell phones and don’t use landlines.” True enough; what’s particularly interesting is that when you ask them why mobile phones are often called “cell phones,” their answers are usually unconnected to anything having to do with reality. One person told me that mobile phones are called cell phones because “they’re small,” like a human cell.

What do we do with a phone? Again, the answer depends. For many people, phones are used to make calls to other people. For my teen-aged daughter, that’s crazy talk. Phones are used to text friends, read email, listen to music, check the weather, and play games. Talking? Why do that?

What is particularly interesting here is that when we talk about phones and using a phone, we might think we’re all talking the same language, but we’re not. In fact, we may be speaking very different languages, even though we’re all using the exact same words. As should be obvious, and ironic though it may be, this effect can make communications just a bit tricky: after all, it’s not just phones that experience this little multi-definitional condition. However, since the point about communications is obvious, we won’t discuss it further. Instead, we’ll look at the more interesting question of why this sort of thing happens.

Fundamentally, what we’re looking at is a cultural shift in process. Over time, the meaning of a “phone” is changing, and that new meaning is moving through the population at different rates. Just because culture is shifting, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to change for everyone at the same time! Cultural propagation takes time. Now, to be completely fair, in a very real sense the exact meaning of a phone probably isn’t going to make that much difference to anyone. However, when the cultural shift is around how work should get done or around the strategic direction a business is taking, this cultural propagation effect can make a very big difference.

One of the problems with any significant organizational change is that major changes typically involve altering the underlying ways in which people work. In fact, we may even be changing the basic principles or reasons beyond why the work is being done in the first place! In other words, what we’re changing is the culture. As we’ve just seen, that’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. One of the big reasons why cultural change is so difficult is that it takes time to propagate; even worse, though, is the fact that those areas of the company where the culture hasn’t changed constantly pull back on the areas where the change is occurring, further slowing down the change. In other words, doing things the way we’ve always done them remains very attractive for a very long time. The old ways are like a comfortable old jacket: no matter how threadbare it may look, we don’t want to get rid of it. Let’s face it, there are people who not only resist smart phones, but don’t even carry mobile phones at all.

Avoiding the cultural propagation problem isn’t easy. It requires doing something that many people seem to find incredibly difficult or at least sort of silly: telling a good story and then living up to it.

That’s right, we start with a good story. Businesses create stories all the time. It’s human nature: we tend to organize information sequentially and we instinctively use a narrative structure to make sense of events. The culture of a business is expressed in the stories the business tells about itself and about key figures in the organization. If you want to change the culture, first you have to change the story. Once you’ve got the story, then you have to live up to it. Senior people need to make the story real: they need to demonstrate the values and message that they are promoting. Then, even as they travel around their business telling the story, they also have to be patient while it propagates. If you can’t live up to your story, few people will believe it and your cultural change will fade out as it propagates. Sure, you may see temporary successes, but the pull of the old, comfortable, believable story will stop your change process. At best, you might have a few small areas temporarily speaking the new language.

It’s only when you tell a believable story and make it real through your actions that everyone ends up speaking the same language. That’s a successful change.

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