Cultural change within large organisations is hard

CC0 Andrew Branch

Dan Hon is back! He restarted his rambling (but super-smart) daily newsletter again this week, after some mental health issues which he’s always very upfront about.

He’s been helping set up the Child Welfare Digital Service in California. It’s a tough project, but one that has the opportunity to have a huge positive impact on thousands of vulnerable children.

Dan writes, however, that cultural change is hard because you’re having to criticise the current environment:

It doesn’t matter whether the environment was willed into being in a singular act or whether it accreted over time (say, thirty years worth of reactive policy and practices building up like some sort of regulatory ring of limescale scum in a student house bathtub), all that matters is that it’s there.

That environment, though, effectively implicates everyone who has a stake in that environment.

And there it is. So, you’d think, perhaps it’s better to create an ‘innovation unit’?

Put it this way: you land on a planet that has hardly any free energy so the only type of life that can survive there is slow and large. The approach that I’m using right now is essentially nuking it so that quick, fast life can thrive, but it’s a bit of a blunt instrument because you end up nuking the entire planet. Where a planet is a department or an agency, of course. 

There is no “lab” here. And the struggle I’m dealing with is: how well do you want to solve this problem? Do you want to solve it properly, for ever? Does that inevitably, inexorably mean changing the entire organizational structure, and is the best way to do that top-down? Or, can you do it bottom-up? Can you start a couple cells and have them do a sort of reverse-takeover?

This is why I think innovation labs don’t work: they silo off the danger to the organization and they let all the different stuff happen elsewhere where they can’t affect the environment of the host organism. It’s as if you were able to deal with cancer by saying: okay cancer, come right in, you can have just my left foot, but I’m going to make sure you can’t get to the rest of my body. 

In my naive understanding, when cancer wins, the host organism dies. You don’t just get big undifferentiated blobs of cancer or innovation. They don’t take over the organism in a useful parasitic way. 

This isn’t to say that you can’t get good results by, say, embedding a small multi-disciplinary team inside a department and empowering them to get stuff done. But my worry is: so what? So they get some stuff done. Do you win the war? How do you get from that one small team and change the way the entire department works? 

I’m more or less sure that at this stage of my so-called career, I haven’t seen any successful examples of cell or bottom-up based organizational change. They only ever come from the top. You can win small battles, but I worry about longevity. 

What this says about government in the large doesn’t inspire me with confidence. At least, not in my lifetime.

On the contra, for what it’s worth, here’s an opportunity. Any time anyone’s going to upgrade or replace a legacy system and they’ve got money to do it (and in most government cases, it’s stupid money), the legacy system replacement is the best excuse you’ve got to do org and culture change.

In other words, what passes for true cultural change depends on what kind of organisation you’re dealing with. For some places, like government and university departments, the rate of change might be glacial.