One of the most interesting points that emerged from my PhD research was the importance of the hidden factors in organisations that can impact on their ability to move forward and change.  The iceberg model is well known as a model of organisation culture.  But, in my own research, I found that there were other factors that were as important as the assumptions and beliefs from the original model.  My own iceberg model also includes the history of the organisation and also employee identity, ie how the employee sees themselves in relation to others.  You can access and download my version of the iceberg model here.

I will come back to employee identity in another blog but today, I wanted to focus on organisation history.

Most organisations, even those who have only been around for a while, have a rich history of stories, characters and previous change initiatives which can all impact on the success of any future change.  In fact, I found in my research that the history of the organisation acts as an anchor in the past, making it difficult for employees to move on.  This is especially true if employees look back on the past with nostalgia, a topic that I have previously written about.

But, most organisations do not take the time to understand this history and the stories surrounding it when they embark on a change programme.  Even in academic research, the field of organisation history is only just getting started.  This could be because most organisations are forward looking rather than reflecting about the past.  And yet, my research showed that engaging with this history can have a very powerful impact on an organisation’s ability to create change.

Official histories – the story that the organisation is happy for you to know about

If you think about most organisations, their history is made up of a series of stories or narratives. These might be stories about key figures in the organisation or key events that have taken place.   Many organisations have a foundation story that explains how they were formed and where they came from.  Organisation such as Dyson and 3M use these stories to explain their key innovations and how they got to where they are now.  These stories explain how the organisations got here but these tend to be fairly linear accounts.

Often, this is as far as ‘official’ history stories of organisations go.

But, in reality there are a whole lot of other history stories going on in organisations that are created by individuals rather than the organisation as a whole.

Unofficial histories – the human as a storytelling being

Humans use stories in every part of their lives.  Narratives and stories are an important tool that we as humans use to make sense of the past and to explain decisions and processes that are being made now and in the future.  Reading a foundation story such as the examples above give a sense of what the organisation is like.  However, the reality of many organisations is that they do not conform with their official biographies.

There are a lot of other stories being told by people in (and outside) of every organisation that play just as much a part in how successful change can be.  As an example, I worked with a client recently who told me about a story that was doing the rounds about someone who had worked in the organisation many years ago and what they would have thought about the changes that were being proposed.  The person in the story had left many years ago and the people telling the story had never met them.  However, this key person and their achievements continued to be an influence on the way things were done in this organisation as their story continued to be told.  Hence, why these stories can really anchor an organisation or a team in the past.

Interestingly, if I had not been working with this organisation to encourage storytelling, I wonder whether this story would ever have been unearthed?

Getting to grips with history

Engaging with organisation history requires effort as it involves excavating into the underneath parts of the organisation.  As Robert Macfarlane says in his wonderful book Underland, “actively to retrieve something from the underland almost always requires effortful work”.

One of the best ways of understanding the history of the organisation is to first look at what the official sources of information within the organisation tell you.  Look at the website, intranet, employee newsletter and other official sources.  It can also be interesting to look at how offices are laid out, whether there are photographs or paintings in the office and what are they of (key people or locations typically).

Then, once the official sources have been carefully reviewed and trends identified, it is time to understand the unofficial history.  And the best way to do that is to gather stories from employees and take notice of trends and commonalities.  Using my ChangeStories approach enables stories to be gathered easily and in a structured way, but simply asking some key questions can elicit some interesting stories about the history of the organisation.  To download and access some key questions to ask to understand your organisation history, click here.

Making use of the history of your organisation

Organisations are discovering that understanding more about their history is important not just in a change context but also for leadership generally.  Research has shown that leaders can make use of key aspects of the past to pull people together towards a future common purpose.  It reminds people of “who we are” within an organisation and creates stronger bonds between individuals.  This links with the principles of Appreciative Inquiry (which I use in my work) which suggest that people are more likely to change in future if they feel that something from the past that they value remains consistent. But, if we do not know what they value from the past, it is impossible to connect with it.

Recent research argues that leaders can make use of the historical narratives in other ways too.  Clearly, it is important to build organisation identity through the use of stories from the past.  But this research and other suggests that leaders can create legitimacy and authenticity around future change plans by linking them back to historical narratives.

There is a real strategic reason then for spending time understanding the history of the organisation.  It is more than just simply understanding what might get in the way of a change programme.  Understanding the history, the stories that are told about it and how this might link to your future strategy can provide leaders with the tools that they need to drive more successful change in their organisation.

Start to notice the stories that are told about the past in your organisation.  What are the key themes and what do they tell you about the organisation?  And how might these stories impact on the organisations ability to create change in the future.

I’d love to know what you find out!