3 Lessons from Anthropology That Can Help Businesses Facing Change

July 19, 2017

3 Lessons from Anthropology That Can Help Businesses Facing Change

By Andi Simon

Do you feel like you are following the latest shiny object? Chasing the noisiest new notion? Are you sleepless over decisions that sounded really smart but may not be right for your organization—or for you?

These days, the speed at which new technologies and business models are changing is accelerating like never before, but our ability to adapt to these fast-moving changes is stuck in the way-we-always-did-it world. Yet, humans have survived because we have been able to adapt and evolve. Is there something we can learn from our past that might help us thrive now? Fortunately, yes.

Leaders can be real detriments to change when they become detractors, undermining the cultural transformation that’s trying to emerge.

As a corporate anthropologist, I work with organizations to help them conquer change. And what I see in almost every company I work with is the same challenge: a business culture that sustains and even encourages the status quo. Add to that the brain’s natural resistance to change and you can understand how I have my work cut out for me!

Applying the Theory, Methods, and Tools of Anthropology to the Workplace

Over my years of helping business leaders and their teams learn how to change, I developed three tools to help them see, feel, and think in new ways so they can sustain their growth and build their organizations.

1. Tackle Your Culture

Often HR professionals reach out to initiate a change process after a new CEO has taken over their organization, or when the current leadership realizes that more of the same is not taking them where they need to go. Whatever the situation, HR is sure the problem lies in the company’s having the “wrong culture.” And it needs to change. But to what? And will a new one be better or worse than the current one?

What is your culture, and what should it become?

To answer this, start by getting a company’s stakeholders to use a very successful tool called the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI). Developed by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn at the University of Michigan, the OCAI has been taken by more than 100,000 employees and 10,000 companies, large and small.

First, employees assess their company’s culture as it is today, then explain what they would prefer it to be in the future. These two findings quickly reveal how they view their company’s strategy, leadership, management structure, and definition of success. They also shine a light on whether the current culture or the preferred one would be the best one for the organization.

For instance, I worked with a hospital system that was very controlling and hierarchical. It also had nine unions. After doing the OCAI, the staff all wanted to see more collaboration, innovation, and empowerment across the entire organization. Even the board of trustees expressed the same preferences. But when I began a culture change process with the system’s 2,500 employees, we all learned quickly that saying they wanted to become more collaborative and actually doing so were two different things.

2. Change the Story in Your Head

Once you begin to realize that more of the same is not going to build better results, you need a process to change how people think about their work life and habits.

As humans, we have well-established routines that guide our daily activities. Those habits emerge as we grow up and create mind-maps in our brains where we “see” the world through a particular prism. To change how people interact and what they say to each other requires some new visualizations, or stories, where they can “see” things with fresh eyes.

My second change tool involves getting employees to tell stories about how they get things done now. Next, they need to create a new story about how they will get them done in the future. For example, for the hospital client, I had the nursing staff tell stories about how they admitted and discharged patients. The problems withing their current system came to light, as well as how and whythey could collaborate better to solve those problems. They created a new story about what was possible. The problem was that their culture was not aligned with what should be happening in their interactions with hospital patients.

3. Overcome The Challenges of the Herd

My third change tool focuses on the leaders of different groups of people—administrative leaders like managers or CEOS, or informal ones whom people follow not so much because of their position in the company but because they influential or well-liked. Either way, leaders can be real detriments to change when they become detractors, undermining the cultural transformation that’s trying to emerge. If you bump up against these types of employees in your own change process, be aware that their disruptive actions may come from a fear that the new culture will undermine their power in the old.

A good strategy is to overcommunicate with naysayers. Overtrain them. Use deliberately designed test situations to determine if they will be serious obstacles or powerful forward movers. Then overexplain to them how their personal participation in the company’s cultural transformation and growth is crucial to the future of the organization.

What It Takes to Move an Organization Forward

Change is never easy. Make it fun. Make the undesirable desirable. Laugh a lot. Give rewards. Throw parties. Celebrate accomplishments. You will be amazed how all of these seemingly simple acts can actually convert reluctant performers into successful stars in your company’s new story.

Remember, the times they are a-changin, and therefore so must you.

The Authors: 

Andrea (Andi) Simon, Ph.D.,  is a corporate anthropologist and founder of SAMC which brings the unique perspective of anthropology to businesses and organizations that need to change. Simon is the developer of the proprietary process ChangeMap, built upon the foundations aof anthropology and neuroscience research. In addition to ChangeMap, SAMC has developed a team of trained experts in Innovation Games, Blue Ocean Strategy, and cultural assessment tools. She is the author of On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.