These days, I have the luxury of existing somewhat apart from an organizational culture. As a consultant, I get to swoop in, sometimes, knowing that my mere presence will shake things up for the organization’s traditional way of operating, and that, within that dynamic, there are new opportunities for change.
I also get to observe different organizational cultures, which is a very valuable experience. I can often get a quick ‘feel’ that a particular organization is, for example, particularly receptive to an advocacy orientation, or especially concerned about appearances and protocol. In one organization I’ve done some work with, they even started a Transformation Council, to specifically look at how the organization itself needs to change, in order to more fully live its mission. The formation of that council, in turn, has created momentum for change, which is embedding itself now within the organization’s culture (in a way that openness to change begets more openness to change).
Since much of my work involves helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy and social change work into their direct service provision, I’ve been thinking about the role of organizational culture in helping institutions make this shift, and about how to use organizational culture as a lever for the kinds of alignments and redirections necessary for the organization to take on this advocacy function as a complement to their services.
As quoted in Switch, “organizational culture isn’t just part of the game; it is the game”, and I find that that’s no where more true than in trying to get an entrenched organization, and, more importantly, the stakeholders who are entrenched within it, to embrace a new way of seeing those they serve (as co-creators of social change), their services (as bridges to fundamental social transformation), their staff (as catalysts for empowering advocacy), and their organizations (as resources to be leveraged in pursuit of social justice).
Review of case studies of organizations that successfully tackle change find an important practice in common: the existence of small-scale gatherings where like-minded individuals can exchange ideas without surveillance from opposition, including internal opposition. These gatherings allow people to gain strength in unity, somewhat set apart, until they are ready to engage more openly. Applying what social workers know about groups, that’s how cohesion, and the norms that accompany it, set in, so that, in this case, before there is an effort to unleash the new ideas on the larger entity–the organization–they have rooted themselves within a part of it, demonstrating, of course, in the process, that the sky will not fall down.
Understanding the critical role of these ‘free spaces’ within organizations, and the role they play in successful organizational culture shifts, doesn’t necessarily tell us how to build them. Or, perhaps more accurately, how to permit them to grow, since there’s a certainly organic element implied. They are in some ways like the learning circles used in the Building Movement Project’s model, except that, here, there’s a greater willingness to let only those staff members enthused about social change cluster together initially. In some ways, because of the appearance of distance from the rest of the organizational apparatus, they have a sort of ‘cell’ quality, which means that organizations, and these actors within them, will have to get at least a little comfortable with tolerating some dissent and division on the road to a larger purpose.
Have you been part of a ‘free space’ within an organization? What did it look like and how did it function? Organizational leaders, what do you do to cultivate this learning circle approach, and what within your organizational culture supports or resists those efforts? And social service agency change agents, when have you attempted organizational transformation without the benefit of this ‘incubator’? How do you think it might have made a difference?