Culture Change: Riding the Crest

The Theory of Culture Change

A Culture is a delineated group of people who because of group boundaries hold to consistent common understandings and ways of doing things. In turn this group of people can be delineated by their common understandings and way of doing things. They tend to also be delineated by identity - we are the specific workgroup, team, church etc. Identity is to some extent defined by a common value and belief system that in turn defines ways of working and includes beliefs about the best way of achieving things.

A culture may exhibit axioms (core beliefs eg that there is one God), myths ( beliefs that may or may not be true but arise from axioms eg intelligence is linked to skin colour), and ways of working (eg the way to do mission is to hire a hall and an international speaker). At any of these levels - axioms, myths or ways of working - it may be desirable to encourage change ie "culture change"

Self-perception of a culture group is significantly coloured by the shared axioms and myths of that group. In the extreme, shared axioms and myths of the group define an attitude or even polemic boundary between cultures. The Islamic myths of "The Great Satan" and "Holy People" define where the culture group begins and ends. The axioms of religious righteousness and holiness maintain the myths - "Holy People" - that colour the cultural self-perception. A viewpoint external to the culture tends to see a very different view. A western view of the Islamic culture would suggest that this culture is no more or less holy than any other, just different.

Within any culture, there are a number of sub cultures each with their own axioms and myths. The distinction between the term "culture" and "sub culture" is a semantic convenience allowing comparison between the container culture and the contained culture. Sub cultures will replicate axioms and myths of the culture with alterations, additions and subtractions. Often the view of those from outside the culture are that there is very little difference while to those fighting across the sub culture divide, they are strong, vivid and detailed (consider Festus' attitude to the dispute between Paul and the Jews Acts 25:13ff). The political government of Australia forms a sub culture within the Australian culture. During their term of office, that sub culture becomes more distinct as the axioms and myths valued by the Australian culture are replaced by others. Finally the dissonance between the two cultures is so great that a different government is elected. During the opposition period, that same sub culture works hard at identifying and aligning its axioms and myths with those of the Australian Culture. If their alignment is perceived to be better than the current government they may win the election.

One way culture change is achieved is by the conflict of cultures providing the testing of axioms and myths and the survival of the fittest of those axioms and myths ie those most useful. Revival history describes the heavy impact of revival on society. There are many documented cases where pre-revival society was corrupt and failing, post revival society was renewed not just in Godliness but also in ethical and social responsibility at all levels. The axioms and myths of the corrupt society around power, money, greed etc do not survive the axioms arising from the christian culture.

Another way culture change is achieved is by placing a culture in a new context that breaks down the axioms and myths of that culture. Classic liberal theology arose from, among other things, a mix of the enlightenment, evolutionary theory and higher critical method in the mid to late 1800s. The axioms and myths in this culture did not survive the trenches of the first world war. The militaristic, holy war interpretation by many churches of the first world war was exploded by the horror and the grey - rather than black or white - reality. While many men returned home, few returned to the churches that sent them out.

In both cases, culture change is achieved by exposure to influences from outside whether those influences are positive or negative. These influences provide a mirror in which the culture can truly see itself. This process can be from inside or from outside. If from inside, members in the culture go and seek out different viewpoints. If from outside, members move into the culture from a different culture bringing a different set of axioms and myths.

Large change in culture is less likely to occur if from the inside. It can be extremely difficult to assemble and assimilate a set of axioms and myths that are very different from the culture that you are part of. Your culture's axioms and myths will tend to filter and reject those of the other culture. (Mt 7:1-5). Usually the best that can be hoped for is incremental improvement in the same directions that the culture is going.

Large change in culture is more likely to occur if from the outside. The change of context or the addition of another culture that becomes a change agent causes a re-examination of the axioms and myths and their change. This process is inevitable if the change agent - whether context or foreign culture - continues to be in conflict with the host culture.

Change in culture is gradual and elastic, if the push to re-examination is removed, the change may or may not stop. Early in the process, the culture will tend to snap back towards the former set of axioms and myths. Toward the end of the process, the culture will tend to continue in that direction as the changed axioms and myths gain critical mass.

The process of culture change is two ways. A change agent is itself potentially changed by the culture that it is interacting with. The resulting axiom and myths across the culture and change agent will be defined by the relative malleability on either side of the culture interface. Missionaries from western countries can have a very "mundane" worldview. They in some cases will have no place for axioms and myths referring to the spirit world - even miracles and similar phenomena. In this example, their role is to be a change agent and change the culture from an animistic culture that has strong axioms and myths about the spirit world to a christian culture. In that process it is common for the missionary to recapture a christian spiritual set of axioms and myths such as miracles and the demonic. A change agent that has little success in changing the culture but is itself markedly changed can be said to have "gone native".

The speed of change is dependent on a number of factors. The process speeds up as the imperatives to change increase in force and also as the new axioms and myths become useful. The process slows down in proportion to the distance between the axioms and myths of the culture and the opposing culture or context, and also on level of attachment of the culture to its axioms and myths. Australian culture has a strong equality focus on a number of levels, however there are sub cultures that maintain standards of inequality - the redneck phenomena. These sub cultures manage to survive unchanged despite strong imperatives because of the level of attachment and the distance between the axioms and myths of the sub culture compared to the culture.

Culture is changed due to either conflict with another culture or a new context. There is nothing to say that the culture or context needs to exist before the process of culture change. Often, where a leader needs to initiate culture change, that culture exists only in their minds or in their own personal culture. This is the basis of methods of initiating culture change. Often the leader or leaders who are initiating the culture change are described as "change agents".

The Practice of Culture Change

The first stage in initiating culture change is to define the axioms, myths and ways of working that you wish to change and what you wish to change them to. This is easier to say than to do since in many cases while it is clear that there are problems, your descriptions of the axioms, myths and ways of working will tend to be vague because these things are deceptively complex. In addition they are things that are a lot less defined than the descriptions you may wish to apply. A church that operates with little cross relationship, love to each other or consideration, that instead is highly divisive and political may have a description of the current culture including a lack of christian love, a lack of christian community etc. The target culture that you wish to move that church to is equally difficult to describe and you may use terms like: being a people of grace, being in community, having Christ's love for each other etc. In both cases, the descriptions barely indicate the outline of the shape of the cultures in question rather than truly defining them.

A written description of both cultures - the current one and the target one - may be useful in the actual process of culture change, however much more important is that the person who is working the change have a very clear understanding of both, even if every time they describe the cultures they use a different description.

The next question to answer is what are the imperatives that will force the culture to address the new axioms, myths and ways of working? There are many that can be used depending on the situation but the following are examples:

1) The Axioms and Myths of the Old Culture: Frequently the actions of members of a culture don't match axioms and myths of that culture. Churches tend to maintain the axioms of christian behavior and the myths that they largely comply. If a church has fallen into bad community practices of judgment, blame, division, gossip etc, one option is to restate the axioms and myths and point out the discrepancy. It takes judgment in deciding how to make the restatement. There are times and contexts for a strong statement and also times and contexts for encouragement and anything in between.

2) Stated Direction or Purpose: A culture contains dreams and visions, directions for the future. Frequently the culture must change to achieve those dreams. The linking between the achieving of an objective that the culture wants with changes to that culture can be a strong imperative. If we revisit an example above, the Australian Government has just lost power because its culture is not aligned with the Australian culture. The political party has as a dream and vision, that of gaining government. To gain that objective they will need to undertake culture change to align again with the Australian culture.

3) Statement of Context: The contexts in which a culture lives are subject to change. Changes required to adapt to a new context for either survival or some other motivator can be driven by that new context. Prior to the Second World War, Britain was unprepared in either a military sense or a culture sense. The culture was focused on surviving the depression. Survival in the new context of war required a shift in axioms, myths and ways of working to channel resources into the war effort rather than the comfort of the population. It was the marketing that Britain carried out at a number of different levels that caused that culture change.

4) Various Power Bases: A description of power bases can be found here. If you have strong legitimate power - ie power from position eg you are the boss - you could require culture change based on that power. Another example is the peer christian leader who has legitimate power in that they are equal and can use relationship power to push a different viewpoint.

The third step is to begin to state the new axioms and myths in a manner that links in the imperatives you have identified. It is important to state them on two levels: the visionary and the specific. A strong element of culture change is aligned with vision leadership. Culture change is a journey from where the culture is today to where you want it to be - we are going to be a professional client service organization because otherwise our competitors will steal all our clients.

The new axioms and myths should also be stated at the specific level - 'We are going to be a professional client service organization which means that we should no longer describe our clients as "unfeeling grasping dolts"!' The comparison of current axioms, myths and ways of working are shown in contrast to the new culture clearly identifying the change required.

Expect that you will have to continue to restate the new axioms, myths and ways of working at both levels. Remember that culture change is elastic. It feels like nailing jelly to the wall: until there are enough nails in, it doesn't stay there. There should come a point though when it starts getting easier.

While I have said that you must state the new axioms and myths at both the visionary and the specific. There is a second dimension in that you will need to state them in multiple different ways - verbal, written, action etc. The more ways of stating the new culture the better. Each different way that you can use will add a different texture to the message and allow better understanding. Remember that even the best verbalization fails to capture all the complexity of a new culture. Communicate an expectation that the new culture is already in place - act like it is, operate according to it and finally be surprised when it isn't.

There is a general principle in education that if a lesson is not challenging then the student will not learn much and become bored. If it is too challenging the student will not learn at all because they will just avoid the challenge. The best results are from a lesson that is challenging enough to extend and engage the student but equally is achievable if the student applies themselves. This principle is equally germane to the process of culture change.

While the visionary level of communication may be about the final destination, the specific communication must be tailored to what the members of the culture can or will achieve. The change agent should specifically choose the distance that they believe that the culture can move at one time. The choice of distance will depend on the strengths of the imperatives as well as the change agent's judgment about the optimal distance that a culture can move. If the imperatives are strong - "You will lose your jobs unless..." - then the distances chosen can be larger than where imperatives are weak - "You will really please me if...."

In choosing what to work on in culture change, recognize that, like any major process, it is important to choose which aspects to concentrate on. For those undergoing culture change, it is a difficult and complex learning task, especially since the actually learning outcomes are poorly defined. Trying to address all aspects can have the same result as choosing a distance that the members of a culture cannot achieve.

If the change agent chooses the optimal number of aspects and the optimal distance to move at one time, the change agent will enter the sweet spot of culture change. Like riding the crest of the wave, the culture will move steadily and faster than either a more aggressive or less aggressive approach.

For the members of a culture, the process of culture change is uncomfortable, just as any growth or learning process can be uncomfortable as the student is stretched. This in turn can cause tension between the change agent and the members of the culture. The change agent should both expect this and also have strategies in place to deal with it.

The process of culture change is not to be embarked on by the faint of heart. It can be hard work for both the change agent and the members of the culture. At times it is difficult to see any progress, at other times it is amazing the distance traveled. The process of culture change is potentially very rewarding as the change agent begins to see real progress from a poor set of axioms, myths or ways of working to those that match where the culture needs to go.