Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

How to win by accepting culture as it is

One of the innovation tips I immediately took issue with was "Don’t fight culture". I want to change whatever is not working, so my reaction to reading this was, "What, how can that work?"

But I must admit, it is critically important that we work with culture as it is, mostly because it is very difficult to change culture, even when it doesn't appear to be working to its own best advantage. Culture is what it is because people steeped in the culture have grown up believing it works, living as if it works, at least. Culture emerges from the background noise of society because it has been found to work. We rely on our beliefs and ways of doing things, modes of interactions, etc, to guide us collectively through the otherwise random chaos of all possible scenarios. Rarely do we find that cultural breakdowns occur to the extent that we need to build anew, ignoring all that was in the past.

It sounds like culture is, almost by definition, stuck in the past, traditional, old school, unchanging. But I would argue that most cultures are adaptable to change in some ways, probably because changes in the environment have occurred over time enough that the culture either learned to be more flexible to those changes, or it perished. An example might be how a culture deals with the occasional catastrophes that affect a few members of a society. We see how people in a small town will rally to help one of their own rebuild a barn after a fire, for example. Collective barn-raising is one of those things we do.

So the question regarding social innovation is how can we take advantage of culture, rather than fighting it, to promote innovation? It seems obvious that we need to understand the culture first, in order to work with it. Fighting it would not require much understanding, unless you want to fight it most efficiently, but I think we might find that the best way to "fight" a culture is to, again, not fight it, but work with it as it is. We have to understand it and even accept it in order to then work with it.

But innovation is about making changes, and so the most important thing to keep in mind in order to make changes in an existing culture is that we have to find the ways in which the culture is already open and willing to making changes.

That's it in a nutshell. All the particulars of how we go about doing that depend on the culture we are looking at. While I know my own culture pretty well, I am not much of a cross-cultural expert, so please comment if you have examples from your culture, or others that you know of, that illustrate this point. How are you and your family, friends, neighbors, and local community open to change?

Views: 26

Comment by Ken Eklund on March 21, 2010 at 7:42pm
Very insightful post, Daniel. I found several gems of ideas in there, most notably "Culture is what it is because people steeped in the culture have grown up believing it works, living as if it works, at least. Culture emerges from the background noise of society because it has been found to work." I'm giving you points for Local Insight! T
Comment by Daniel LaLiberte on March 21, 2010 at 9:57pm
Thanks very much for the extra points. I am honored that you found my ideas worthy.
Comment by Sylvain Ratelle on March 23, 2010 at 2:00am
Hello Daniel, I support that vision, we are there to help and support, not to colonize, I will follow your blog for next evidences, and be back to you, When you get a minute, please try to have a look at my blog, and don't hesitate to comment and support, talk to you soon, Regards
Comment by Lori Hutcherson on March 26, 2010 at 11:42am
I love posts, like this one of yours, that cause me to question and look at the immediate situation right about me. Even within one city, there can be so many cultural differences and we want to be respectful of those when considering solutions.
Comment by Turil Cronburg on March 27, 2010 at 2:11am
In my experience, everyone, no matter who they are or where they are, is motivated to work for something better (Maslow fan here!). "Culture" is sort of the collective wisdom for how to do that. Of course, nothing being perfect, all cultures end up with entrenched dead ends. It seems to me that the best way to go is to back out of the dead end and go back to basics until a new path is found that is more effective for getting people to where they want to be.

So, when people aren't enthusiastic about what they are doing now, you can always ask people to look back at what they've been most excited about doing in the past, and then help them brainstorm, research, and just generally explore different ways that they might be able to get there.

(Oh, and I gave you Courage, because I see how you challenged yourself to learn something new from your original negative reaction. I love that!)

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