An Interview with Sandra Daniel on an Organizational Culture Journey
Q: Sandra, you specialize in organizational culture shifting. How did you start doing this line of work?
I’ve been working in the space of organizational change for fifteen years. My journey originally started when I was nine and moved from Canada to France. The different social rules and values really struck me as intriguing, and I started taking mental note of the many different ways of knowing and being in this world. In university, I narrowed my focus to more purposefully understand the way people learn to show up in organizational settings and what it would take to shift culture.
I started working in the public service in 2008, which provided me with valuable insight into how change occurs in multiple different organizational environments. I worked on as many different transformation programs as I could, ranging from digital transformation to cultural transformation to systems design. After eight years, I started working on cultural transformation within one of the UN bodies. That experience helped me to better understand complexity of multi-stakeholder and cultural contexts. I then began working in a boutique consultancy, this time consulting for private and public sector organizations around how to effect organizational or community-driven change. And finally, I started Openfield with my business partner, Philippe.
We wanted to be able to explore, design and offer more holistic ways of effecting change at a systemic level.
Q: What is it about your work that has made you stay in this field for so long?
When I first started working in organizational change programs, I found that we were applying change management practices to transformational contexts. I don’t think this works very well in the end, the reason being that the assumptions underlying a lot of management practices are difficult to sustain in a transformational environment. Transformation is a journey of discovery in which collectives and individuals explore new ways of knowing and being. Ultimately, that requires both consent and free-will.
While change management is very useful in some contexts, it’s a practice that adheres to hierarchy and respects formal lines of decision-making and governance. Change management looks towards concepts like buy-in, while transformation needs to look more towards concepts like consensual adoption. These are two different contexts.
I found in my past work that the application of management practices to transformation projects was usually unsuccessful. When these projects did succeed, it was often because of massive effort on the change management front. And as soon as the teams in charge of driving that work left, so did the change programs. The stickiness effect of these programs just wasn’t there.
With transformation design, the patterns of engagement and underlying assumptions are fundamentally different from those of change management. I’m still in this work because I felt that the field needed to be reinvented.
What we’re doing at Openfield is designing models for systemic change that honour consent and free-will, as well as different organizations’ unique sets of values, without compromising the business outcomes.
Q: You’ve spoken about organizational culture patterns and anti-patterns before. What do you see as defining patterns in your field to date?
The first pattern and anti-pattern I would point out is change management vs change platforms. We often think of organizational change as needing to be managed. In this context, people are prescribed pre-determined ways of working or engaging with their organization. A change platform, by contrast, seeks to identify the desired outcomes for the organization, then create a platform of experimentation on which people can participate in defining what it looks like to live that future state. This context democratizes autonomy and creates space for everyone in the organization to choose, when they’re ready, to participate in this redefinition, all within the boundaries established by the organization.
Another important distinction is between output and outcome. In transformation design, instead of prescribing the What and How, you define the Why — then allow the What and How to be collaboratively defined within an experimentation zone. This enables the whole team to establish for themselves what it might look like to arrive at the organization’s desired business outcomes.
Planning is certainly still required, but there are a lot of things we can understand through process rather than cognition. If we hold true the importance of consent, we can’t in the same breath dictate what a new way of working needs to look like. Instead, we can facilitate conversations around a change process and invite our people to show up.
Leadership conversations that are helpful for this include questions such as “What could this new way of working look like for you?” or “How do you imagine you could best position yourself to achieve this business outcome?”
Finally, a key characteristic of this practice is emergent design. Our work moves from a process-centric organizational relationship to a culture-centric one. We have to put as much effort into organizational culture as we put into the business practices we adopt. This is especially true in the era of COVID, when organizations are leaning more towards culture clubs rather than business hubs. More and more what is holding us together organizationally is our shared aspirations for a particular business outcome rather than a physical workspace.
Q: It sounds like you’ve seen a lot of different organizational culture transformations in many different business contexts. What are the levers for change that Openfield has built into their change platform model?
The Change Platform model is composed of Strategic Navigation, Operational Navigation, Narrative Regeneration, Relationships, Physical and Digital Environment, and Body of Knowledge. All of these levers sit on a platform of experimentation. When an organization is looking to go through systemic transformation, that experimentation zone is where people can choose to engage in new ways of working. Each of these levers for change are different mechanisms that enable an organization to do things differently, and they can be leveraged all at once or in different combinations.
For example, there’s a strong link between operational navigation and narrative regeneration. I think this is becasue the stories told about an organization define the ways in which people relate to the organization and the work they’re doing. If the only thing you can do is start telling a different story about how your organization wants to show up in the world, that is an incredible place to start.
Focusing on another lever might look like redesigning an organization’s physical space in order to increase collaboration, or capacity-building by ramping up the skills and knowledge of an organization’s employees. Each of these represents pieces of an organizational system. The well-defined experimentation zone supports the alignment of efforts across these various change levers so that you are congruently and cohesively effecting change.
Q: Any final thoughts?
I think organizational culture change is an emergent process. It’s a process of understanding both your own and your organization’s ways of showing up in the world.
Openfield is continuing to use our change platform model with great success to enable organizations to design and journey through systemic change, and we look forward to working with more organizations in different contexts.