The 2019 Monet Impression Sunrise exhibition was one of NGA’s most successful exhibitions ever. As we stood there and admired the beautiful flowers and leaves, we were looking at what Edgar Schein calls the ‘surface level of an organisational culture’. Like Monet, most people concentrate on the surface level of culture, because it is easy, because we can see it. For example, we naïvely think we can change our car culture by putting paint on the road! Let us explore the concept of culture change a bit more, and link it to active travel and cycling infrastructure examples.
The iceberg model of culture change
You might have heard of the iceberg model of culture. It talks about 3 distinct levels of culture:
- What’s above the water level: The things we can see and touch and feel, like the roads around us, signage that is either there or not, pedestrian areas built for active travel, priority crossings – or the lack thereof – along main cycle ways, change rooms with big and ventilated lockers, bike sheds, unmaintained paths, road duplications, etc. This is the conscious level and what anthropologists call artefacts.
- Espoused values and beliefs: These are our lived and planned values, for instance safety or fairness, and also vision and value statements that are repeated at community meetings.
- Basic underlying assumptions: This is the deeply ingrained and unconscious level of lived behaviours that we typically are not even aware of. For example, these assumptions might have been conscious values that the ‘founding fathers’ of our Canberra transport culture believed in back then: enough room for parking, safety for cars and drivers, wide roads to ‘make driving safer and faster’. This is the level that needs to be targeted if you want to achieve transformational change, as these taken-for-granted beliefs and values determine our perceptions and behaviours. Add to this the fact that our deeply rooted personal values and character traits also lie here, and you will realise how complex and difficult culture change is.
The lily pond analogy
Edgar Schein has moved on from the iceberg and now proposes the lily pond analogy to capture a few more of the structural attributes of the 3 levels (Schein & Schein, 017, p.6). Like with the iceberg, there is much more below the surface. The temperature and air might change (the climate), but the deep water below changes at a different and much slower rate.
On the surface of the lily pond you’ve got leaves and flowers and things – the cultural artefacts. They’re very visible and what a new visitor to Canberra would see. That’s the “how we do things around here”: bike lanes, narrow shared paths, cyclists on Northbourne Avenue, wide roads, 80km/h zones within the city, bus lanes painted in red (“Danger! Be careful!), slip lanes painted in green (“All good and safe! You’re only crossing a bike lane and might encounter a vulnerable human being!!”). As all these things are visible, it is also the level where conscious role modelling and symbolism come to play, which is why active and visible top sponsorship is the number 1 factor for change success or failure. And why photos of the Dutch King riding to work went around the globe on World Bicycle Day.
We have a very strongly ingrained car culture here in Canberra. Unless we tackle this very predominant culture with all its paradigms and habits, we will continue to make active travel related decisions through the “windscreen mindset“.
If you are interested in understanding WHY we do things the way we do, you are forced to look at the root system of your beautiful water lilies. What is feeding the roots? What is the DNA of the lily? Do the roots change if we prune the flowers and leaves? What is the history of the pond? Which environment is the pond in? Who planted what and how do those planters’ values and goals still impact on today’s decision?
If you don’t dig down into the reasons for why we do things our current way, you’ve only looked at the culture at a very superficial level, and you have not really understood it. Lack of understanding then consequently means that all actions and interventions are purely tactical and not transformational.
Building road duplications will lead to more people using the shiny new thing. Building bike infrastructure next to main roads means that only those who do not mind breathing in car fumes and stopping at every single traffic light – just like the cars do – will use it.
People always start at the surface level, because it is the easiest. If you have an issue to solve you need to ask the question ‘Why?’ and dig deeper. You might only see the surface phenomenon and realise that you have a culture problem, but you will not understand the reasons why, and you will not be able to come up with meaningful interventions to fix the problem.
Edgar Schein tells this example, which I have paraphrased here: Your Sales are off and you think your Sales people are not collaborating enough. You decide to send them to ‘working together’ or ‘collaboration’ training, but notice after a few months that your problem has not gone away. Quite the opposite. Some of your high performers have realised that their market value has increased, and they have looked for – and found – new work.
After digging deeper, you realise that the reality is that your individualised incentive and reward system has developed a competitive culture. You now ask yourself: “How did we get to this state of being individually competitive?” You might find that the founders of the organisation believed in maximum individual competition (value statements), and that they built that into the reward, performance, and all other HR systems.
“OK”, you might think, “let’s change these HR systems”, but now you are trying to change all those structural things that have supported this value based behaviour, and all of a sudden it is not so easy to anymore.
Cultural norms and differences are fascinating. As pointed out by Melissa & Chris Bruntlett in a recent Facebook post, standing at the border between the Netherlands and Belgium, you can literally take a photo to visualise the difference between a cycling and a car culture! Where would you rather live?
We need to get down to the DNA and the roots of our car culture to evolve it into an inclusive active travel culture. For this to happen, we need to look at leadership, culture, and change at the same time.
As long as we’re staying on the surface level of culture change, we will not achieve a real shift, as there are just simply too many forces pushing against it.