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“Use the Culture, Luke!” Why Organizational Culture is like the Force

Recently, there has been a good amount of discussion on GovLoop about culture in the government agencies. I am hopeful that we continue the discussion because I fervently believe that cultural change is the key to fully realizing openness in local, state, and Federal governments. Maybe 2012 will be the Year of Culture as we discuss ways to effectively cause the necessary transformation of governmental cultures.

There is a major barrier to cultural change and that is explaining exactly what is culture and how do you influence it? There are numerous definitions among the experts and just as many ways to affect culture. This is not surprising because culture is an intangible and dynamic product of any given group of people. I have often found that explaining culture and how to change it is the prime example of “nailing Jello to a tree.” What is a good metaphor for explaining culture and how to transform it?

It was while I was stuck on the Blue Line to other day that the idea that culture is a lot like the “Force” in the Star Wars universe. I then jotted down some parallels between the Force and organizational culture:

Like the Force, culture is created by all the members of a group and surrounds the group: As Obi-Wan explained to Luke, the Force “binds the galaxy together.” In organizations, culture is what binds the group together. Think of how the culture created by the U.S. Marine Corps connects all Marines and influences their behavior and decisions. The Marine culture has been developing over the last 200 years and there are elements within it that are timeless while other elements were just created yesterday. The culture not only affects the individual Marine but that same culture is constantly changed by the actions of the Marine. Every group that has an identity is both influenced by and influencing the culture that surrounds it.

As the Force can enhance our abilities, so can culture: For those who know how to use the Force, they can achieve great feats and make the seemingly-impossible happen. The Jedi Masters went through a great deal of training to learn how to perceive the Force and then, WORK WITH IT, to enhance their efforts and thoughts. We have the same type of Jedi Masters of culture. Think of how Jack Welch used and shaped the culture of GE to transform it into one of the most successful companies in history. Louis Gerstner, the CEO who saved IBM, transformed a strong but outdated culture to an amazingly vibrant company today. They saw the culture and then worked with it to make small events have major impacts.

Culture also has a dark side: As Darth Vader and the other Sith Lords amply demonstrated, the Force can also be very destructive. Culture also can be destructive in that personal prejudices and biases can become institutionalized. The “glass ceiling” in some organizations. The preference of one ethnic group for certain tasks and awards. The way junior staff members are expected to communicate to senior staff members. I can give many examples and I am certain many of you have your own examples. The point is that culture’s dark side can arise from bad decisions made by the members or can be created by cultural Sith Lord who wants to hijack the culture for their own selfish purposes.

Learning the Force, Learning the Culture: How many times have you seen a new leader immediately try to change things the first day they gain the position? They don’t take the time to understand the culture and learn how to see the flows of power in the pre-existing culture. These impatient padawans just rush in and fight the culture head-on. They spend a great deal of their strength and a great deal of the patience of the organization trying to force the culture into a new state. They often don’t succeed or, if they do, the change is not sustainable.

There are some aspects of a culture that should be changed as well as some aspects that should be preserved. But which is which is not that readily apparent. Again, understanding the flow of power in a culture can enhance a leader’s abilities to change it but this requires a period of deep study and learning how to influence the cultural flow of power. Think of Luke’s impatience as he was training under Yoda as a great example of a new leader trying to fight a culture while achieving their goals.

Unlike the Force, there is more than one culture: The Jedi have it easier than we do. They only have to learn about one Force while governmental leaders have to deal with multiple cultures. You have the agency culture, the various cultures of the program offices, the distinct cultures around professional groups, and then the personal cultures of your employees. All intersecting and sometimes collaborating with each other or sometimes confounding each other. How many cultures influence the hypothetical example of a Muslim female attorney (Harvard Law School) in the Atlanta field office of the Social Security Administration? What aspects of which culture are important and which can you safely ignore in bringing about change in her office? How do bring about change that is not only fair to her but to the other diverse members of the organization? This is a daunting task but not impossible as Welch, Gerstner, Jobs, and other cultural Jedi Masters have demonstrated.

I hope this metaphor of the Force as organizational culture helps in understanding the importance of culture and difficulty of changing culture. Metaphors and stories are a great way to capture the meaning of a culture and how we transmit culture to newcomers. I look forward to your comments. Is this a good metaphor for culture? Is there a better metaphor? How would you explain culture and cultural change?

[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this posting are solely my own and do not reflect the views of my employers nor any organizations that I am a member of.]

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Profile Photo Jay Ach

How true, unfortunately, and especially when plural:

The point is that culture’s dark side . . . can be created by cultural Sith Lords who

want to hijack the culture for their own selfish purposes.

Great analogy, however.

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Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Not a Star Wars person myself but I get it and enjoy reading posts that take popular culture and personal stories and apply them to the workplace. All of these tips are useful but think #3-5 are especially important, with #5 being the one that is most often overlooked. Question: Do you think there is a similar lesson about culture to be learned from the “Star Trek” and other sci-fi series? Personally when I think about ideal leadership and management I often go back to “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” So many lessons there.

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Profile Photo Bill Brantley

@Lucas – Thank you!

@Danielle – There are plenty of lessons about culture in Star Trek including how the the big four cultures interact (Human, Vulcan, Klingon, and Romulan). Many of the better sci-fi stories deal with cultural issues and often serve as a laboratory for the author(s) to comment on current cultural controversies.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Fascinating that two posts within a few days of each other use fantasy science fiction to discuss culture change – check out Nick Charney’s post as well:

https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/used-to-be-a-public-servant-took-an-arrow-to-the-knee

Also:

How many times have you seen a new leader immediately try to change things the first day they gain the position? They don’t take the time to understand the culture and learn how to see the flows of power in the pre-existing culture.

I had a buddy who took over a county department and pledged to himself and his team that he would not change anything until after 30 days. He wanted to learn from everyone first…and he was effective in achieving key changes over time. That’s the other thing – so many leaders want to move fast (not only at the beginning but as a matter of course)…but you risk killing the golden goose in the process.

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Profile Photo Jay Johnson

The Force is strong with this one… all though my high school physics teacher prefered to say, “May the sum of the forces be with you.” Thanks for the post Bill.

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Profile Photo Steve Richardson

Excellent post, Bill. Culture is an institution of shared values and customary processes (ends and means) that reached its current state (and not another one of myriad possibilities) for many reasons. We (change agents) don’t get to start somewhere else. The burden of demonstrating the desirability and feasibility of another state is on us.

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