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Shifting Paradigms Part 3: The 3 Pillars of Cultural Transformation

In my organization, Balfour Beatty Construction, as with many organizations around the world, there is often a desire or need for some sort of cultural transformation. These transformations are in response to a paradigm shift in the broader environment and are necessary to keep a large organization relevant. There are countless business courses, processes, methods, and theories about how to enable cultural transformation and millions (if not billions) of dollars of consulting fees spent trying to figure out the secret to effective cultural change. However, if we look at some of the most effective cultural shifts in history – specifcally religious and political transformations – there are three pillars that have enabled these movements to persist and stay relevant for decades, centuries, or in some cases millennia. These three pillars are:

  1. An aspirational, inspirational story that exemplifies the movement's key principles,

  2. A robust and passionate community motivated to make that aspiration a reality,

  3. A supporting framework of teachings to guide the community’s development.

An Aspirational and Inspirational Story

The trigger for any movement is some sort of aspirational and motivation story, ideal, or example. This story is the embodiment (although sometimes fictional or hypothetical) of everything the movement stands for. The “story” serves three functions: 1) it paints a picture of what is possible by introducing the aspirational goal, 2) it shows us that attainment of that goal is a possibility for anyone, and 3) it instills people with passion and excitement toward achieving that goal.

The “story” may come in the form of sharing the life and times of a particular superstar, saint, or savior – who by their example shows us what is possible. Whether that be: Martin Luther King Jr., Emilia Earhart, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhartha Gautama, Alexander the Great, or even your great grandparents who immigrated to this country with the clothes on their backs in search for a better life for their family and future generations – These are some of the stories that inspire people to achieve things in their lives that otherwise they would have thought impossible.

In other cases, the “story” may not come from the example of someone’s life, but a hypothetical scenario that paints a desirable picture of an ideal alternate reality. In some cases, the story also needs a charismatic leader to tell it. In other cases, the story is compelling in and of itself. Charismatic leadership is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can keep people interested for longer periods of time so that they really want to listen to the story, understand it, and make it part of their life – this can be especially valuable in the early part of a movement’s growth when the message and supporting framework have not been totally developed. On the other hand, at some point the story and its ideals have to be compelling enough on their own so that they naturally inspire those that hear it and the movement can become bigger than its leader.

In either case, the key is that the story is grounded in what is known, common, and relatable but shows the higher potential that is possible. A story that does not start from circumstances that are relatable already alienates most people. A story that stretches too far becomes too much of a leap for followers to make safely (so they don’t even try). A story that doesn’t stretch far enough is uninspiring. So there is a delicate balance between awe and assimilation that is needed for the conditions to be right for a movement to take off. The story is the spark, but the other two pillars of community and framework are critical to the strength, durability, and long-term success of a movement.

A Robust and Passionate Community

The second pillar, community, provides the critical components of: 1) support, 2) a sense of belonging, 3) opportunity for learning and training, and 4) a forum for the idea to continuously evolve. For people that are new to the idea, community provides a protective, supporting, and psychologically-safe environment for their understanding of the idea to grow and blossom. Also, by hearing other’s journeys, challenges, and successes, the higher order goals seem more attainable. Psychologically, community also strengthens one’s commitment to the movement because now it is not just about the ideals themselves, but also about the sense of belonging to a group that shares those ideals.

Community also provides important cognitive opportunities. Being in the company of like-minded (or at least similarly interested) individuals, allow individuals to explore an idea, discuss it, learn from others, gain perspective, and constantly refine their understanding. In this way, community provides the opportunity to get comfortable talking about the idea and a forum to share “best practices”– stories or images that really convey the ideals, proofs or experiences that illustrate the transformation, ways of talking about aspects of the movement more impactfully - all of which increase the potency and relevance of the message.

“Mind, like a crystal, is colored by its surroundings. You are bound to reflect the qualities and shortcomings of the good or bad friends whose company you keep.” ~ H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

A Supporting Framework of Teachings to Guide the Community

The third pillar is the framework of teachings, ideology, and guidance that creates the path one can follow to achieving the aspirational goal. The framework is critical because it provides: 1) an individual practice to make the transformation personal, 2) specific important topics for discussion by the community, and 3) a roadmap to reach the goal.

Developing and individual practice is necessary for each person to have their own relationship with the journey so that they can talk about it from an authentic place (rather than just regurgitating words and phrases from others). It allows them to go at their own pace and not be hindered or overwhelmed by the rest of the community. The framework also highlights the most important focal points and discussion topics of the movement. For example, any company interested in a lean transformation needs to talk about defining “value” and “waste”, enabling flow and pull, and continuous improvement – these are the some of the basic dogma of enabling a lean transformation. As the community discusses these focal points, practices certain exercises, and embraces certain behaviors, hopefully, they progress in their personal understanding of the ideals and slowly being realizing the end goal. The key is to constantly and honestly reflect, refocus, and refine to make sure that the framework is truly a path to the goal and not corrupted by ego and ulterior motives. As I often tell people – “We too often focus on the tools and processes. The tools and processes simply enable certain behaviors, those behaviors then frame our relationship to the broader world, and those relationships are what eventually transform us.”

While these three pillars exist in every great cultural transformation, Buddhism – which over the centuries has done an amazing job at codifying these types of profound insights - addresses them directly. They are called three jewels or three pillars: 1) the Buddha (an aspirational figure or story), 2) the Sangha (community), and 3) the Dharma (the path or teachings). One can begin the journey to enlightenment through any one of those but they are all interconnected and necessary if one is to fully realize the goal.

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