Picture a group of monkeys in an enclosure. A researcher enters and places a ladder right in the middle of the group with fruit on the top step. The monkeys immediately go for the treat with the quickest racing to the top of the ladder. But at the moment s/he picks up the sweet-smelling fruit s/he is sprayed with freezing cold water. And so are all the other monkeys.
After loud protestations the monkeys dry themselves off and then try again: with the same result - a cold soaking. After a few further tries the monkeys make the link between picking up the fruit and everyone getting wet.
They quickly self-regulate: physically - even violently - preventing each other from climbing the ladder as none of them wants to get soaked anymore. So the researchers - belonging the crafty primate family of homo sapiens - replace one of the monkeys in the enclosure with a new one; one who hasn’t been part of the experiment until this moment. This new monkey takes a bit of time to size up his new surroundings and neighbours. Failing to understand why no-one else is going for the fruit at the top of the ladder he makes a dash for it. He's violently beaten back into a corner.
The researchers continue to introduce a new monkey - replacing one of the original group - every few days. The same routine is repeated with even the new monkeys now joining in the violent beatings, until the moment arrives where all the monkeys in the enclosure are 'new'. None have never been up the ladder, or been sprayed with cold water. And what happens …?
None of the monkeys go up the ladder to collect the fruit.
This famous thought experiment seeks to explain how deep and dominant culture runs within groups. It isn’t just current behaviour that dictates how the group acts, but the memory of previous actions - even if they happened before this group's time. The collective memory permeates new recruits, indoctrinating them stories of ‘how we do things around here’ in order to survive or thrive. And these stories are rarely challenged as the consequences for breaking them may be too high (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’, ‘that won’t make you popular’, ’someone got scared for doing that’)
This is why changing a corporate culture can be so difficult - so much more difficult than changing the strategy if the two don’t align. Attempts to change culture must start with discovering what the culture really is - not what you think it is, or would like it to be - but the real culture that infects everyone who comes under its influence. This spreads through the organisation's stories and legends and only when you stories - not only about the present and the future, but about the collective past as well - can you nudge the culture.
Often it’s far quicker - and more profitable - to change your strategy than it is your culture.
The third and final part of this series of blogs - Arrogant Strategies - will be published next week. In the meantime, for free information about how to map your culture and discover the dominant stories driving it contact firstname.lastname@example.org