Welcome everybody to the Momenta Edge Podcast. This is Ed Maguire Insights partner at Momenta, and today we have a special guest, David White, who is the principal of Ontos Global, and a cognitive anthropologist. Ontos is a boutique consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay area. Dave is also the author of “Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations.”
There’s an interesting back story to this; David and I knew each other way-way back when, in the New York area, where we both happened to be jazz musicians, and through the miracles of social media Dave reconnected with me just recently and shared a tape of some of the music we’d played together. Dave is a fabulously accomplished jazz guitarist and composer who has a number of CDs to his credit, he’s played in a Grammy-nominated band amongst other things. We’re not going to talk about that in this podcast, but it was really a wonderful way to reconnect.
Thanks for having me Ed, it’s great to reconnect and relive some of those crazy moments from New York City.
Yes, it was. The recording you shared was on a hot summer day where we all got together, and essentially just improvised without any pre-conceived material. It has a lot of parallels with what we end up doing in our daily lives in many ways.
In more ways than one. We should also point out for your audience Ed, you are also a very fabulously accomplished multi-instrumentalist. That day you were playing bass, and it was a great memory.
Yes, it was, and in the
David, share a bit of your background, what got you into the study of
Like for many of us, it’s a long and winding road, it’s a sequiturs route. I would never have predicted that day that when we were playing in New York City in the 1980s, that we would be having this conversation 30 years later.
My journey, I have maintained a career in jazz as you mentioned, but early-on decided rather than being a
So, it’s been an evolution with the common thread of trying to figure out why organizations do what they do internally, and why some of the
You pursued a
Well much later, after 20+ years of working in this space, I was always interested in the more formal intellectual questions and literature on this topic, but finally decided to pursue a PhD in the late 1990s-early 2000s, and got a cognitive anthropology, which is the study of the relationship between the brain and culture. Cognitive anthropology is a relatively new discipline, it’s a sub-discipline of the mix of psychology and anthropology with an emphasis on the brain, there’s been an explosion in research,
How did you make the evolution from working inside
I would say it’s not really
I had been fascinated by the culture of questioned long before I joined Microsoft, which was in the early 2000s, but when I got to Microsoft a lot of these ideas about culture came to the fore, because of the experience I was having. I’d never been inside an organization where this nebulous thing called culture was so palpable, that got me really interested in how to deal with it, how to understand it, how to measure it. Also, I should point out, we were doing a lot of work in culture change, trying to ‘change’ the Microsoft culture, for a lot of reasons which we can get into, and most of those approaches to my mind were quite inadequate, woefully inadequate, I have to say I was part of that change effort, but I was also deeply skeptical that what we were doing was going to move the needle in any way.
So, the combination of being in a system where the culture was so strong, and also realizing that the culture change mechanisms that we were employing were naïve, just behind the times in my view, got me interested in going deeper and
I know you’ve written quite a bit on this, and there’s quite a fascinating paper on your website called ‘Disrupting Culture’, which we will link to in the show notes. One of the points you make is, culture is a term that’s probably one of the most over-used and least understood in society, and as that ties back to organizations, you cited a study that showed 76 percent of firms in a survey had planned some sort of culture change. I think it’s worthwhile stepping back a bit, and define what culture is; how do you look at
It’s remarkable, the culture field is littered with carcasses of failed innovations, and yet it persists as one of the most popular… every executive that I know of on the planet talks about their culture. There’s a lot of reasons for that, one reason is that the science of culture is still relatively young, despite the fact that Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict in the 1920s were writing about primitive society cultures in the study of
What has happened, or what has shifted is that much of the business world treats culture as a dependent variable, something you can manipulate like any other asset. Whilst that’s an understandable position to take, because most executives are not concerned about culture, they just see culture as a means to an end, they’re trying to achieve better financial performance, or achieve some sort of organizational transformation for good business reasons, and culture is just another variable in the mix of variable that you can manipulate. Some of that thinking is traceable back to the
Some of it however also has to do with the fact that a lot of the study of culture in organizations, and the study of culture in Business Schools comes from economists, or management scientists who have been separate from the research traditions in cultural anthropology, psychological anthropology, and cognitive anthropology. So, there’s a gap between what the Business Schools talk about, when they talk about culture, and what the anthropologists, the linguists, and the neuroscientists and the other folks talk about in the academic world, separate from the business world is really a divide.
So, the combination of business pragmatism, out-moded theories of culture that have been leveraged, that are over 100-years old; and the fact that the people who do organizational research aren’t really talking to the people who do social-science research in the broader sense, has contributed to this gap in understanding.
I think what seems to be a challenge, and what has certainly come up in our conversations is that the ability to change behaviors in organizations once you go past the famous Dunbar’s number of 150 people, gets much greater. Historically have the studies of organizational culture been driven just as a means to scale a business, and create replica behavior? How have people thought about culture in the past, and are there some new elements to the analysis in the interim or since then, become much more important in determining how to drive change?
In my view, the
The research in the 1970s moved that discussion to thinking about organizations much more as normative environments, where the best way to manage and motivate people is to harness their energy, their motivation, and their interest in the work or the
So, culture is just another aspect of this, the ideas
One of the points you made in your writing was, creating change in an organization is very much dependent on what the organization does; if you’re a software company, or you’re trying to go through a business transformation from selling wages to selling software, there’s a fundamental foundational change at work that has a direct outsize impact on the ability of a company that
Good question. Let’s back-up, to answer that question you need to understand what I was saying earlier about the cognitive revolution in the social sciences, and particularly in anthropology. So, the new working cognitive in
The cultural take on that, or the cognitive anthropological take on that is then that as applied organizations, and this is the core thesis of my book, is that what you do shapes how you think. What does that mean, that means specifically that your professional orientation, your professional apprenticeships, the professionalization of your organization, meaning software engineers, lawyers, doctors, any kind of engineer, any deep professional training that the majority of your workforce has obtained will tend to shape the cognitive orientations of those people, those individuals, so, professionalization shapes how you think.
The other part of this thesis, also in my book, is that working under a meaningful task, solving very difficult problems over time, and successfully doing so in a sustained way, also shapes how you think. So, meaningful task attainment if you will, to put a technical term on it, and professionalization, are the two driving forces of how cultures come to be in organizations; which is shown and proven again and again in the literature, because we know that companies within industries are more culturally aligned, than companies across industries. We know that the nature of the work that companies do does shape the collected cognitive orientation, that’s why non-profits have a very distinct way of culturally speaking, feels quite different than for-profit companies, this is why government institutions or bureaucratic institutions feel quite different than for-profit companies. It’s the nature of the problem that they’re solving all day long indelibly shapes the collective thinking.
That is one of the great findings of cognitive anthropology over the years, that the brain in its neuroplasticity is deeply shaped by the environment, taking that into organizations, what you do all day, the orientations that you bring to your work shapes how you think, and that includes technology, that includes the business models that you create for yourselves, the way you organize your processes, all of these tend to shape collective neuro pathways. Think about it that way, what is culture? Culture is shared knowledge, culture is a shared body of knowledge, the tricky part is, most of that knowledge is tacit or implicit, but we don’t know that we know it.
So, culture is kind of shared mental models for how the world works, and the emphasis is on ‘shared’, and the emphasis is on ‘tacit
That’s got some interesting implications
That’s a complex
So, to your question, with the implication on recruiting, it obviously has a strong insinuation that diversity matters a lot in shaping collective thinking, it’s one of the reasons why diverse teams, diverse in every sense of the word, over the short-term tend to under-perform homogeneous teams. But the more heterogeneous the team or the talent pool is, over time with proper attention to these phenomena tend to outperform homogeneous teams. The reason for that is, homogenous teams, whether its professionally homogenous, or gender, race, ethnicity, geography etc., will tend to absorb or take in the resident cultural models, the resident reference system, without question. Whereas a so-called outsider in any given system will tend to become more readily aware of that reference system, and call it out, and therefore make it available for change.
So, in other words, the less
So, change is possible but
That’s a fascinating insight and cuts to my interest here. I think your comment about diverse teams outperforming over the long term, I think most jazz musicians just implicitly understand that. That ultimately the more eyes that you have, and the more brains on a problem, looking at common goals from different points of view, there’s absolutely no doubt there.
What are some of the tools? You brought up the example of a manufacturing company trying to introduce software capabilities, or software business models, that’s certainly one example that’s very close to the work we’re doing at Momenta; are there tools that companies can use once they become aware? And talk a bit about the role of language, are there ways you can change
Yeah, I’ll take the second one first. It’s an interesting question Ed, because language is one of the areas where there’s been a lot of new thinking, the historical view on language and culture is that languages and culture were synonymous, change the language you can change the culture, if we just get our executives to talk differently the culture will change. Most cognitive linguists and cognitive anthropologists today will debate
We transact all our world and certainly our business world in language, so language can bring to light these schematic drawings, or schemas or mental models that reside in the background. But the language in and of itself is not capable of changing a culture, and this is a big
What I mean by practice is, in the obvious sense of the word its repetition, its sustained effort over time, but it’s also with respect specifically to organizations is, the collection of formal and informal ways in which you run your business, and especially run the core of the business. When I say practice, I mean the way you think about and allocate risk in your organization, think about the manufacturer again, trying to implement IoT; at the core of the manufacturing task environment is risk mitigation, the cost of failure in manufacturing is very high. So, what manufacturer is going to release a product to market in a six-week sprint with bugs? I don’t know any manufacturer that will do that. So, at the core of the manufacturing task environment is
The software world has a very different orientation to risk as we know, Sprints, Agile, Hackathons, these are all ways of iterating and failing fast, and releasing product to market all the time with known bugs. So, it’s a very different mental model and
- How do you change your risk management, or risk mitigation practices?
- How do you change your budgeting practices?
- How do you change your definitions of success with the practices that surround how companies define what good is?
In the software world, failure is good. Not succeeding, or failing fast is a value, it’s a virtue in organizations, so how do you incorporate failure-oriented practices where failure becomes okay, into an industrial manufacturing organization? So, the key is practice, much more than language, much more than executive pronouncements is, how do you change your practices? The emphasis is on both the informal and the
That is very difficult for organizations to do, because as we know in our
I don’t know if this is making sense, or not?
No, it does, it does. One of the questions that
I wish I could sit here and tell you we’ve discovered the Holy Grail of linking culture to financial metrics, and we’ve figured it all out. I would probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if that was the case!
Bottle it up and sell it as a service!
I would say right now it’s a bit of a fool’s errand
You made an interesting point about leadership, I think that cuts to an enormous disconnect, at least in
First off, let me say something heretical for a practitioner, our firm does a lot of leadership development work and we are very steeped in the leadership development
In other words, a lot of what leaders do in most organizations is set the vision or establish what the value should be around a positive culture change, but they kind of leave the organization to its own devices to figure out what to do about that. From my cognitive perspective, again, that is just
- Allocate resources,
- Set agendas,
- Define priorities,
- Set strategy,
And then ensure that all the practices in the organization, everything from the way you…
- Go to
- To the way you hire,
- To the basis on which you develop and promote people,
- To your compensation and reward strategy,
- To the way you budget,
- The way you sanction risk, and so-on.
There’s a basket of about 25 key practices that you can engage in, all of those are aligned to the end state that you want.
It sounds conceptually intuitive or maybe easy, very-very hard to do in practice because organizations, especially large ones, have different departmental agendas,
This gets much more complicated of course when you have acquisition-hungry large businesses that are constantly bringing in new teams. How do you align the evaluation of culture, from the
Well, you and I both know the statistic that
- How they make sense of their world.
- How they understand risk.
- How they formulate opportunity.
- How they think about what success does or doesn’t look like.
Not in just the acquisition sphere, but in general.
What is good, and what does good look like for them? These are tricky questions, there’s social dynamics, the normative pressures between the acquirer and the acquired. This is especially why you see organizations like the GE model; GE well-known in
So, the key to all that in our view is, it is about bringing leadership teams together, allowing these hard conversations to happen, allowing these tacit mental models, these tacit views of the world to come out, to be surfaced. All of that takes time, all that takes skillful facilitation, all of that is potentially conflictual and messy, and in companies where the emphasis is on speed in this day and age, it really precludes a lot of that kind of work. It’s another paradox
No doubt. When you look forward, given all of the new insights and practices, and best practices that are starting to surface, over the next decade how do you see first of all your field evolving, and can you point to how a successful organization can successfully take advantage of some of the insights
If I sounded a little bit doom and gloom, I am inherently quite optimistic! I do think the culture industry, and it is an industry, is very right for disruption. The tenants on the industry are really built up of 100-year-old science, or pseudo-science, if built on anything at all. So, if there was an
Having said all that, the next 10, 20, 30 years of
The organizations that can take advantage of some of this emerging science I think are going to be fine, their cultural change in investment is going to return something. Most culture change programs fail to return any ROI, but that ironically or paradoxically is going to take doing some of the things that I’ve been talking about, it’s going to…
- Take an emphasis on practices, not an emphasis on pronouncements.
- Move the discussion away from values and talk about outcomes.
- Focus on deeply seated organizational practices that are getting in the way of your desired change.
- It’s going to take leadership teams having hard conversations and surfacing their mantel models, and assumptions about how the world works.
Forcing them into how they might change some of that, all of that takes time, so part of the answer to your question is, successful culture change also requires a long-term commitment. Many, many culture change programs are emphasizing
The brain does change, neuropathways do change, but they change over time with sustained new experience, sustained new exposure. So, things take time, culture is a five-year effort at least, at a minimum, and that’s if you’re doing everything right.
That’s super-helpful to keep into perspective.
My final question is about a recommendation, I always love to ask if you’ve got a good book or other resource recommendation for our listeners?
I know of no popular book on organizational culture that’s worked over time, I always hate to say that. The book I wrote is really an academic book for academics, researchers, and practitioners, but everything I’ve been talking about is in that book.
A couple of books do come to mind though, if one wants to venture further afield out of business books and into the stuff I’ve been talking about, there’s a couple of seminal books that would give the reader a lot of grounding in the stuff we’ve been talking about, and they’re very readable; one is the very eminent cognitive anthropologist, Ed Hutchins, he’s out of the university in California, San Diego, and he wrote a book called ‘Cognition in the Wild’, and it’s about all the stuff we’ve been talking about. He’s done a lot of work on how technology and technological practices shape the
Another book is again very much in the cognitive anthropology field, a book called ‘Culturize as a System’, by the anthropologist David Kronenfeld, again very readable,
Those are the touchstones for me. If you really want to understand what’s happening in the culture field, you have to go beyond business, cause this stuff is not happening in the business world.
Absolutely. Those are great recommendations David, and it’s been fascinating hearing your insights and your experience on these topics, choose your metaphor but it’s certainly opening up an enormous deep field of additional fields/areas of study, and its enormously complex, but it’s heartening to hear your optimism as well when we’re applying what we’ve learned, to
I’m Ed Maguire Insights Partner at Momenta Partners. David thank you again for taking the time, and
Thank you, Ed.