I’ve just returned from two weeks touring round Australia with my eleven year old daughter. On our travels we visited Uluru, or Ayers Rock, and learnt all about the culture of the Anangu people, the traditional inhabitants of the area. The Anangu are said to have the world’s oldest living culture, dating back more than 20,000 years, and one of the reasons for its continuity is the strength of its stories. In this culture, knowledge is not written down but passed on through songs, rituals, stories and art. We saw cave paintings on Uluru depicting a great battle between a python woman and a poisonous snake man, as well as tales of other colourful characters such as a kingfisher woman and an evil devil dingo! These sacred stories are stunning in their simplicity and yet profound in their meaning. They are passed from generation to generation with great conviction and passion, supported by the physical ‘evidence’ of rock folds, shaped boulders and glacial markings. You can’t help but believe in them.
At the end of the day, that’s what culture is – the sum of all the stories. In business, an organisational culture is defined by its stories, tales and myths, and cultures can span generations if the stories are strong enough. It also explains why culture is so hard to change. You can’t un-tell the stories once they’ve been told. You can’t un-behave. All you can do is to create the conditions for more stories to be told and – to an extent – you can be deliberate about changing some drivers of culture, like artefacts, behaviours, processes and environment. As we communicators know, sometimes we can deliberately craft new stories, or narratives as we often call them. We can introduce new rituals and create the modern day equivalent of wall art, but the lesson from the Anangu is that is has to have meaning. That, I think, is where many organisations fail in their attempts at culture change – the change has no meaning to the ‘tribe’ sitting round the campfire. Too often, we try to change culture by producing values posters and inspirational mouse mats, but these are simply artefacts. It’s like having the cave painting without the story. Culture change happens at a very deep, emotional level – below the surface – where the beliefs, mindsets and motivations lie. And it doesn’t change overnight, or by Christmas. It takes years of effort, heaps of role modelling and a shed-load of comms to make it happen. I once heard culture described as “an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live”. The key word there is ‘jointly’. Cultures can change, of course, but bringing about that change requires a joint effort way beyond the tangible artefacts of open plan offices and innovation spaces. It requires new stories, new rituals and new behaviours. And it requires time. That’s as true for an ancient civilization like the Anangu as it is for a bank.