The longest journey begins with a single step

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Perhaps it was exhaustion after last year’s annual lecture but I haven’t for some time written about Cultural Theory and my various attempts to stretch and apply it. Some recent conversations have led me back.

I have previously mentioned a new NESTA pamphlet by Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbeater on systems innovation which the eggheads define as

‘an interconnected set of innovations where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the way they interconnect’.

Leadbeater offers the creation of modern schooling, the containerisation of freight and the emergence of social media as three examples of systems innovation.

Last Friday we held an interesting seminar to launch some research by the RSA and Campaign Company on social networks and values in Newham. Our first speaker was David Halpern, head of the Government’s behaviour change task force and all-round policy guru. One of his key points was that the evidence for initiatives focussed on specific changes in individual behaviour was much stronger than that for change at the level of groups or communities.

Most progressively minded people believe we can (and must) increase capacity, resilience and responsibility within social groups but despite all the initiatives, and anecdotes the evidence of what works is very limited. Instead, it is targeted one off innovations, like getting claimants to sign a commitment to look for work when they first attend Job Centres, that has delivered measurable change.

Earlier last week saw the Francis report on the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal. It had many recommendations but at core it was a call for, in Robert Francis’ words ’a fundamental culture change’. But as Chris Dillow points out in his always excellent Stumbling and Mumbling blog, the problem with culture change is that the institutions that most need it are by definition the ones least able to achieve it:

Insofar as institutions shape culture, the scope for cultural change is limited. At yet without cultural change, institutional change won't yield the results people hope for.  

The alignment is neither simple nor neat, but broadly we can say that one off innovation is most likely to be driven by an individualistic mind-set, that system innovation will tend to imply some kind of hierarchical oversight and that cultural change (focussing on shared values) is primarily the domain of solidaristic (cultural theorists unhelpfully call it ‘egalitarian’) impulses.

The obvious conclusion is that to maximise the scope for change (if change is what we really want) we should aim to combine all three types of innovation. But this would be muddle headed.  First, such a combination is not neutral but itself a type of system wide approach (it’s a bit like saying ‘you want to just the two of us to go out together, I want to go out with my mates so let’s compromise by the two of us going out with my mates’). Second, one of cultural theory’s key insights is that the individualistic, hierarchical and solidaristic world views/methods always tend to be in tension.

So can we form any theories about how one should go about big innovation? Another obvious suggestion is that one should start with the simplest form of change – the one off innovation. Certainly, my hero, the Mayor of Oklahoma provides a powerful case study of system change (the transformation of a city) being accomplished by starting with a single focussed change (citizens committing to losing weight). But I suspect there was something in the culture of Oklahoma which led to fat fighting segueing to city wide change.

There will be many routes to change, especially as it is often the result of overwhelming exogenous pressure. But my tentative suggestion for the most promising route is that innovation will tend to start with the specific and one-off (easiest to do, easiest to validate) but that the cultural capacity for change is a critical in determining whether one off innovation can ripple out into system innovation.

This may lead us away from two frequently asked questions in stagnant organisations; ‘why don’t we innovate?’ (the one-off change question) and ‘why can’t we change?’ (the systems question) to a rather more subtle one; ‘is the culture of our organisation such that significant one off innovations can precipitate benign system change?’

‘Ah’ I hear you (singular) say ‘what kind of organisational culture facilitates the process whereby one off change leads to system change’.

I don’t know the answer but I like the question.

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