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Changing Business Culture - The Musician's Way

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

We're going to discuss the business of culture change in an organisation from the perspective of music improvisation. In music this is often the place where new ideas emerge and which then become crafted into a new piece of music. The processes involved in music improvisation have an uncanny resemblence to those needed for non-musical culture change.

The culture of a business is the set of shared values, beliefs, and norms that shape the way an organisation operates. It is often described as the "invisible glue" that holds an organisation together. Changing business culture can be a difficult and challenging task. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  • Culture is deeply embedded in an organisation. It is often based on the organisation's history, its founders' values, and the way it has been doing business for many years. This makes it difficult to change overnight.

  • Changing culture requires buy-in from everyone in the organisation. If even a small number of people resist change, it can be very difficult to succeed.

  • Changing culture takes time. It is not something that can be done quickly or easily. It takes time for people to learn new behaviors and adopt new ways of thinking.

  • The process of change can be disruptive. This can lead to uncertainty and anxiety among employees, which can make it difficult to implement change effectively.

  • There is often a lack of clarity about the desired end state. This can make it difficult to develop a clear plan for change and to measure progress.

  • There may be resistance to change from those who benefit from the status quo. This can make it difficult to gain the necessary support for change.

There is a view that in order to achieve true change something radical needs to happen at least to kick-start the process. As mentioned above, there is a need for buy-in, a recognition that it will be disruptive, that a degree of clarity is needed even if things are uncertain, plus at least, a tacit acceptance from those who may be uncomfortable with change.

If you decide that the situation needs something with a significant impact then you may want to look at the methodology we musicians employ when we choose to truly invent something new, in other words, to improvise.

Unlike other forms of music creation, in improvisation, there are no wrong notes, there is no agreed structure, no agreement as to what instruments might be played, and no way of being certain what will emerge. Sounds chaotic, doesn't it?

In music improvisation we often commence with what's known as a holding form. A holding form is just an initial idea with which to begin to work. As such in the non-musical arena we see them as a combination of 'pre-conditions' which can be used to set up the new way of working. The holding form is a way of starting where everyone feels in agreement. The way forward in non-musical settings would be to try to reach agreement to a set of pre-conditions that are, in combination, likely to achieve the outcome which most want. In many respects it can be seen as a 'good enough' start to the process. At certain point the process will take on a life of its own. So some of the originating ways start to be seen as unnecessary as the new ways begin to carry meaning and value.

Below you can see some working principles from the world of group free music improvisation reimagined for the non-musical universe.

Consider how can you bring these together in combination to elicit the change you are looking for. As you facilitate the development of your organisation, workshop, negotiation, training programme, business or team you can take these ideas on board to explore how they can be made to work for you. Ultimately this is about adopting a suitable mindset for change to occur safely and, as a consequence, successfully.

Starting with these working principles in mind increases the likliehood that whatever you are creating is much more likely to ride the storms of instability in this 'Age of Chaos'.

The best place to start when commencing organisational culture change is values. As in the music improvisation, consideration should be given for building and maintaining adaptivity, inclusivity, flexibility, variety of choice, supportiveness and safety.

Culture change may then move forwards with an initial agreed ‘holding form’ with the above values in mind. The best music free improvisation has its values almost as 'pre-sets'. Without them the improvisation risks at best a feeling of awkwardness and at worst, failure. During values discussions the aim is put as much detail as possible into the hoped for outcome. Do your new behaviours, ways of working, processes fit your values as far as you can initially work out? Remind your team that things can be changed as they start to get into it. You can expect that as the situation develops the changework holding form will begin to show that has served its purpose and things will start to ‘take on a life of their own’.

The primary task for leaders of organisations undergoing change is to maintain and support the group by means of the initial holding form and release it from the holding form when its own form emerges.

Organisations undergoing culture change will eventually create their own form or internal structure. This may seem a little risky. The leader's role is to maintain awareness of the established values and that the new processes as they eventually emerge support the desired outcomes.

Organisational change best occurs when judgment is replaced with discernment. As such improvements occur when what emerges initially is accepted as neither right nor wrong. Let the group work with what has just appeared. An element of mindful trust should be in evidence such that groups can be able to go off at a tangent. It may be beneficial to explore an idea that at first might be judged to be fruitless. Sometimes the best ideas emerge this way. So be prepared for the notion that team members will make the best choices available to them at the time, given their unique perception of the situation. When participants have this openness available to them new possibilities can more easily emerge.

Leaders egos can be limiting when considering organisational change. Look for the true experts in your team. The person with the most flexibility within the organisation tends to lead irrespective of their nominal position within the organisation. These are your champions. Nurture these people. They are naturals.

In the musical improvisation there is no such thing as a wrong note or wrong input only an opportunity for further creativity. Therefore so-called ‘wrong input’ could be seen as a naturally occuring ‘surprise’. Organisations need to be able to 'feel their way' towards desired change and as in music improvisations organically adapt to the new input. 'Surprises' should therefore be considered helpful in the direction of change.

In music the end of the improvisation is unforced and is intuited by the participants. However endings don't always end - they sometimes begin. An organisation will tend to 'know' that it's got there. However be aware that in landing in a good place, new possibilities become more clearly visible and can enable further growth with the new-found organisational confidence.

In addition there are other useful pre-conditions which are worthy of consideration particularly to see how true they may or may not be in the unique situation in which you might find yourself.

  • All behaviour can be perceived as a form of an improvisation. Remember that the organisation is 'feeling' it's way. New processes take time to bed in. Adjustment will be needed.

  • Improvisational activity takes place uniquely in space and time. The organisation is letting go of past ways of working. What is happening is new. Sometimes a previous behaviour just needs a fresh look.

  • Improvisation involves all of the senses, not merely sound. In organisational change words are the currency but their meaning is derived from the context as well as tonality and gesture. What is truly meant especially in a virtual context?

  • All participants in an improvisation perceive the improvisation from their own unique point of view. It's important to remember that everyone sees things differently.

  • Improvisational activity is driven by intention (be it good or bad). Change work needs the motivation and the energy for it happen. Quite often organisations are blind to the need for change and fail to recognise the risks it faces. Without recognition and motivation nothing will happen in which case it may be beyond the organisation to make change.

  • All improvisational activities have meaning to a greater or lesser extent, however the intention behind the improvisation is not necessarily its meaning. The meaning of an improvisational act is the effect it creates. Think cause and effect. What is the real outcome achieved by the process? It may not work as intended.

  • Improvising decisions obey vague or ‘fuzzy laws’ which means that decisions are never completely right nor totally wrong and are usually sufficient for the purpose and for the time being. Objective reality is hard to fully establish. Fruitless inaction can result from needing absolute certainty.

  • Everyone already has all the resources they need to play a valuable part in the improvisation. Yes, sometimes where there is a gap in knowledge training may be needed. However often people innately know the 'right thing' to do so give them the opportunity to own their own decisions.

  • Simple behaviours tend be more effective than complex behaviours. Complexity is often a matter of perception. Look carefully at the issue. Sometimes we are looking at the 'effect' of the problem which can often appear highly complex. Root cause the problem and you may find a much simpler underlying reality. Fixing things at cause can often solve many down-stream problems.

  • Improvisation is a systemic process. All actions within the improvisational system creates responses. Even a nil reaction is a response, which means that all actions influence, even those that do not appear to elicit a response. What happened here? Was the action lacking in impact? Why no response? Was it the action or the context that produced no effect?

​Organisational culture change takes courage from all involved. It can often be seen as going into a very difficult place. Use the ideas we've talked about to throw light on your situation. You may meet opposition from vested interests. If these are a true block to change then you may want to take a look at another blog called "And When It's All Going So Badly..." which looks at musical toxic patterns and their relationship to other forms of human behaviour.

Good luck!

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