A systems view of corporate culture change

We have the ability to think our way out of the seemingly unchangeable ways in which we conduct business, says John Renesch

Put five apes in a room. Hang a banana from the ceiling and place a ladder underneath the banana to enable them to reach it. Have it set up so any time an ape starts to climb the ladder, the room is sprayed with icecold water. The apes will soon learn not to climb the ladder.

Now take one ape out and replace him with another one – Ape #6 – then disable the sprayer. The new ape will start to climb the ladder and will be attacked unmercifully by the other four apes. He will have no idea why. Replace another of the original apes with a new one and the same thing will happen, with Ape #6 doing the most hitting. Continue this pattern until all the original apes have been replaced. Now all of the apes will stay off the ladder, attacking any ape that attempts the climb, and have absolutely no idea why.

This is how company policy and culture is formed.

While this allegory – which was sent to me in an email five or six years ago without attribution – is a humorous and somewhat accurate account of how corporate cultures can become calcified and resistant to change, we need to remind ourselves that we are humans. We have access to a consciousness that can transcend lifelong patterns of behaviour, reframe mindsets and transform worldviews.

Human beings possess the ability to think. We can choose different behaviours. We can learn to think differently. Once we recognise that stubborn corporate cultures are merely collective groups of people acting and thinking stubbornly, that dysfunctional cultures are merely groups of people acting dysfunctionally, it may be much easier to deal with the task of large-scale transformation of these systems.

I use the term ‘system’ to describe a set of expectations and relational dynamics – the ‘rules’ to which people subscribe. Most people are impacted by dozens of systems every day, systems that, to differing degrees, influence their decisions and actions.

A ‘system’ in this context is any collection of practises, traditions, habits, policies and ethics that influence common behaviours. Examples include families, communities, corporate cultures, nationalities, religions, industries, professional groups and trade associations. Your family may have a tradition of making a toast before a particular holiday dinner and, when they do, you feel certain pressures to conform. So you join in the toast.

Good people can behave in bad ways when they are immersed in certain social structures. In systems-speak we call these ‘closed systems’. Examples include religious cults, teenage gangs, militia groups or terrorist groups, which appeal to people seeking some sort of self-identity. An example of a system-gone-wrong would be a lynch mob. The place where we work, of course, is one of the systems that has most influence on our behaviour.

So how does this apply to the corporate system? Most of the time we refer to ‘business people’ in a pejorative way, as ‘suits’ who are ‘only interested in the bottom line’. But anyone who deals with, is persuaded by or receives gain from money or the exchange of goods and services is a ‘business person’. If you work for a company or own your own business you are part of a system that traditionally honours economic gain more than anything else. As a player in that system you contribute in a direct way to the way business is conducted.

In other words, we are all part of the economic system of commerce and have all allowed our corporate systems to develop cultures of market fundamentalism – that single focus on the financial bottom line – which has displaced all other values. By not objecting as it gained footholds in the business culture over recent years, the past couple of generations have enabled this steroid version of market capitalism to creep into the social culture and become acceptable and ‘normal’. To change this, we must change.

Simplistic, cause-effect thinking works for simple systems, but we need to keep pace with the complexity of the modern systems we’ve created. To think a complex systems problem can be solved by linear thinking is naïve and often dangerous.

Most contemporary problems are systemic. The major killer diseases in the world today – heart disease, AIDS and cancer – are all systemic, the result of several factors, not simply a single infecting ‘agent’. The ‘magic bullet’ cures that combat diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and malaria won’t work on the killers that affect the body’s immune system. Treatment requires a whole-system approach that includes diet, lifestyle and state of mind or consciousness, as well as medication. Pills alone won’t do it.

But people still act as if there’s a simple cure. Even doctors are slow to adopt the systems perspective, routinely prescribing medication and hoping for a magic bullet.

Einstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same consciousness or thinking with which we created them. The future is bleak unless we acknowledge the complexity of the systems influencing us. The outlook is depressing, unless the people who make up the systems stop pretending nothing can be done or that they are not complicit in the dysfunctions. The problem is within each of us who allows the deterioration of our cultural functioning to continue.

Those in larger corporations may have a tougher task due to their sheer size, but there are also more people to take it on. Smaller businesses have an easier time but fewer people to help. Older, more established organisations might be more entrenched in their status quo ways. If they are publicly held, the task might be even tougher. It isn’t hopeless, though. People created these cultures, these complex systems, and people can reform them. It is time for people to start expecting systems to serve them in the way they were intended and to emancipate themselves from their tyranny. It is time to recognise who’s in charge and escape from the servitude to the system.

John Renesch is a San Francisco businessman-turned-futurist and a pioneer in the movement to marry the worlds of commerce and human consciousness. He offers keynotes and workshops in systems thinking. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. For more information about his work, visit www.renesch.com

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008