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By Stefan Cantore, ABP Conference Speaker 2013

Dialogic OD-01

Is the work of changing organisational cultures a matter of life and death? I think the answer is an unequivocal YES!

The evidence to support my bold assertion stares us in the face almost weekly in the media. As I write this piece I have in front of me a summary of the latest report by pioneering Professor Sir Brian Jarman. His decades of work on hospital standardised mortality ratios is now highlighting that hospitals in England have a death rate 45% higher than American ones. Yes…you read that correctly – 45%! Professionals working in healthcare and others will talk about staffing levels and better equipment. No doubt both play some part in this terrible situation.

The difference culture makes

But, when asked what really makes the difference to outcomes, Jarman points to the safety culture in America. For example, everyone in a multi-disciplinary team has to take part and speak out their concerns. Effective communication is modelled and mutual respect is the norm. What we call a blame culture is largely absent in the best hospitals. Instead, every safety incident or patient complaint is seen as an opportunity to learn and do better next time. In the UK when professionals speak out about safety concerns the term ‘whistle-blower’ is often still used. This language reveals much about some of our prevailing organisational and system cultures. The price for tolerating this type of culture is paid with the lives of patients. In July the Medical Director of the NHS reported that failings in 14 NHS Trusts may have led to 13,000 ‘excess deaths’ since 2005.Yes – 13,000 lives lost early!

Take a deep breath

This is not just an issue for the NHS. Children in failing schools with cultures not conducive to learning miss out on what they deserve and need to progress. Risk-taking cultures within the banks result in homes and jobs being lost. Exploitative and bullying cultures increase stress related illness and diminish the satisfaction that work should offer.  Lives of the most vulnerable in our society are being directly affected by organisational cultures.

You will have sensed that I am angry. Those of us working in Organisational Development and related behaviour change fields need to feel some anger. And then…..take a deep breath and continue the work of supporting organisational and system culture change.

Fresh approaches

In my experience the conventional 8 steps (or however many steps your model of change might have) is proving insufficient. It costs too much, takes too long, and does not seem to work that well, particularly in complex cultural contexts. Thankfully, available to us are a fresh set of Dialogic Organisational Development approaches which can help create new spaces for culture changing conversations to happen. Structured around the questions that deeply engage people these interactions shift the language and mind-sets that have long dominated cultures and often seem intractable.

I am not suggesting that Dialogic OD is a ‘magic bullet’ in all circumstances. We might not immediately feel at home with the processes and ways of working it offers. After all giving away some power to people through conversation is not what every executive (or organisational consultant) thinks of when the phrase ‘culture change’ is mentioned. That’s no reason not to adopt it. The body of evidence that Dialogic OD works is growing. Let’s learn together and then offer it to our organisations and systems. After all, there are lives to be saved.

About the Author

Stefan Cantore -01When he is not practicing Dialogic consulting with a range of organisations Stefan works with Southampton Management School as a Senior Teaching Fellow in Organisational Behaviour and HRM. His particular academic interests are, unsurprisingly, the role of conversation in consulting processes and using participatory action research to support change and learning.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to hear more about Dialogic OD, Stefan will be speaking at the 2013 Annual ABP Conference on Thursday 3rd October, Wokefield Park, Reading.

To find out more about the conference and Stefan’s session click here for more information

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