Apparently, there is a Chinese proverb that says a fish is always the last to discover the water. It’s usually trotted out during organisational culture change programmes. Regardless of whether or not it really is an old Chinese saying, it conveys a simple truth. When people are totally immersed in something, they often don’t see it.
Culture, as Ed Schein told us, is based on unconscious shared assumptions and beliefs. Because we share these beliefs, we tend to act in a similar way. Because we all assume together, we don’t realise that we are assuming until someone tells us.
There are lots of reasons, good and bad, for calling in consultants but most organisations, when trying to identify their own cultures, get someone from outside to help them. Even the most consultant-averse companies tend to use external expertise when they are seeking to change their cultures or even when, as during mergers, they simply need to understand them better. It’s one aspect of organisational change that most management teams would not attempt to do themselves.
So why politicians think they can do it is beyond me. Gordon Brown wanted to have a national motto (what?) and a statement of core British values. He was even planning to have a national visioning workshop to draw them up. Not to be outdone, within months of being elected, David Cameron was banging on about British culture and values too.
To be fair, though, the politicians were only reflecting the mood among many voters that Britain didn’t have a culture any more. Over the past couple of decades I’ve heard that complaint more and more often. Other countries have strong cultures and we don’t, or so the story went, and the rising stars of Scottish, Welsh and, eventually, English cultures were shining more brightly than the dying glow of Britishness.
But, of course, like the fish in the water, the British were immersed in Britishness so they couldn’t see it. It’s much easier to emphasise the differences you can see than the similarities you take for granted. Ask foreigners, though, and they’ll often tell you that the British are very much alike. OK, there are subtle differences but a lot of things are the same. People say sorry when you bump into them, they drink brown beer in bars called pubs which are not quite the same anywhere else, they have similar diddly folk music, they make jokes at their own expense and its the only place in the world where you could get away with advertising a product by saying that a lot of people don’t like it. And those people delivering milk in the small hours of the morning? What’s all that about?
OK, that was just a roundup of things people from abroad have said to me but it’s as good as anything we come up with ourselves. Really, the British are the last people in the world who should be trying to define their own culture. And our politicians should leave it well alone too.
Perhaps we should listen, instead, to what others have to say about us. Sure, we were putting on a show over the last fortnight so you’d hope we showed our best side but foreign journalists seem to think these Olympics were typically British.
The quirky humour, the eccentricity, the a mix of “know-how and drollery“, the self-parody, the socialism, the shopping and the justice, the “flame of British creativity leaping from one age group to the next“. A nation at ease with itself and with its history. Still a bit stingy, though, and, when it’s all over, a typically British morning-after hangover.
There’s a grain of truth in all of this but my favourite comment came from Ukrainian journalist Maria Semenchenko. The British are so sure of themselves, she said, that even the Queen can afford a little self-irony:
The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games showed that technical possibilities, globalization of the world, and common information space haven’t hollowed the British identity, but vice versa, have strengthened it considerably.
Hardly sounds like a nation that’s lost its culture does it?
When I wrote about that dreadful national values idea a few years ago, I said this:
The organisations that spend the most time trying to write these statements are usually the ones that are in the most trouble. Successful and self-confident companies are too busy going out there and doing what they are good at to spend too much time on such things.
Perhaps the same applies to countries. British people created an industrial revolution and built an empire without having a statement of core values. Whether or not you approve of what they did, there can be no doubt that those who led British industry and government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had incredible self-belief. They would have laughed at the idea of writing down core values. There simply wasn’t time.
That’s what Britain did over the last fortnight. It just went out and did its stuff. That was the statement of our culture. It was up to others to interpret it.
So can we please stop all this nonsense about core British values now? We’ve just shown the world what we are about and, for the most part, they seemed to like it. Can’t we just leave it at that?
Update: Sorry, I forgot to say please. Now sorted. Thanks to Prateek Buch for the nudge.