Managing cultural change

This is part of a series of posts which explores in more depth topics covered in the presentation on organisational culture that I gave to a local Care Association meeting in July 2019.  This post looks at Slide 8: Managing cultural change.

In a previous post on this subject I argued that one approach to changing the culture of a service is to begin by addressing any problems identified in the latest CQC inspection.  The key point I was getting at here was that culture is something that is practiced, and practiced on an everyday basis, rather than being something ethereal and mysterious.  However, I think it would be helpful to explore what this means in more detail, and also to contrast it with another approach to culture change.

According to Edgar Schein, one the ‘gurus’ of organisational culture and leadership, there is a key question that any ‘change agent’ (usually a senior manager or external consultant) needs to ask at the start of any planned culture change programme.1  (I say ‘planned’ because there is also a great deal of unplanned culture change in any organisation, but that’s for another post).  That question is: should they try to change practices and behaviours first and hope that changes in the culture will follow; or should they try to change the culture first and hope that changes in practice and behaviour will follow?

In practice, of course, things are never quite that clear cut, and often it’s a bit of both; people can start to do things differently which then starts to change the culture which in turn can reinforce the changes in practice and behaviour, and so on.  However, I think it is helpful to have this basic question in mind not only at the start of any change management process but also to keep asking it as things progress (or not, as is often the case).   As Schein points out, one of the problems for many aspiring change agents is that they often assume that by ‘imposing’ new practices on a workforce, the people in question will simply adopt them without question.   The reality, as most managers will tell you, is usually quite different, which might help explain why 70% of change management projects fail.

One of the problems about trying to ‘impose’ changes in practice and behaviour is that it is often not explained properly (if at all) why such changes are beneficial for both the service and those most affected by such changes.   For example, moving from a paper-based to an electronic care planning system may be quite challenging, at least in the short term, for care staff in a residential or home care service.  There are a whole new set of procedures and processes to learn; and, equally as important, a whole old set of procedures and processes to unlearn.   Many staff may ask: why bother?  Didn’t the old system work just as well and get the job done?

Even if the answer to this question is ‘yes’, as a matter of fact the paper-based system did function well, this is not necessarily a good reason to keep it.  An electronic system has all kinds of advantages over a paper-based one, especially with regards to the sharing of information, record updating, error tracking, and ease of auditing.  However, this all needs to be explained carefully to the staff team well before such changes are implemented; and especially how this will improve the quality of care for service users and make the staff team’s work easier, or at least more effective.

And sticking with this example, how would adopting such a new care planning system change the culture of the service?  If we think of culture as the shared values, meanings and assumptions the bind an organisations together, or even as the ‘psyche’ or ‘personality’ of the organisation , then, I would argue, approaching care planning in a different way is going to impact on certain assumptions and meanings regarding the nature of care planning and how it is organised.  Whether such changes in practice will impact on core values is more difficult to gauge.

If we now look at the other approach to culture change, that is, changing values, assumptions and meanings first in order to change practices and behaviour, then a new set of challenges arise.   Again, it comes down to the question of the ‘old’ versus the ‘new, but this time it’s regarding the culture itself.  In other words, why challenge basic assumptions, values and meanings when they have worked so well up until now?  In many ways, according to Schein and other academics in this field, this approach to culture change is more challenging than the former, that is, changing practices and behaviour first.  This is because basic assumptions, meanings and values are often deeply engrained both within individuals themselves and within the organisation as a whole.

Often the answer to this question is that the world has changed; the wider society and culture has changed; the culture in the sector has changed, and the ‘old’ assumptions, values and meanings simply won’t do anymore.   Just to give one simple example: a manager may decide to run a training workshop on LGBT awareness, the value and appropriateness of which some staff members may question.  However, the manager would (hopefully) point out that there has been a wider culture shift in the acceptance of LGBT and the whole question of sexual orientation, and this has to be reflected in the service – both with regards to service users and to staff.  Furthermore, policies and procedures regarding LGBT service users is something the CQC now takes a great interest in as part of its inspections, and therefore there is an added incentive for services to change with the times.

And, hopefully, attending and engaging fully with such training will encourage staff members to question their own values and assumptions regarding sexual orientation, and think about how they treat service users and other staff members in this regard.

The key point to remember about managing cultural change within a service is that culture is not some nebulous, mysterious ‘thing’, but rather, a very practical, lived experience.  And because it is practical and lived, it can be changed through a number of very practical, concrete steps.

  1. Schein, Edgar H., and Peter Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2016) []