Culture, Pushing Boundaries and Change


Recently in my professional career I have been yet again posed the question of “why study cultural context” – not so much from a “prove your value” perspective but from a “help us sell this stuff” perspective.

I got to thinking about the connection between “values” (broad term for not-so-easy-to-measure sociocultural “stuff”) and value (the “dolla bills”) and how the way we (at my company, in my profession) help create meaningful change by solving human-centric problems.

Essentially it really all comes back to identifying the need for and efficiently managing the process for change.  Change is what helps us grow – both socially and  – in business terms, financially.   And it all comes down to understanding the boundaries so you can bust them.

It took me back to my go-to explanation of the meaning of culture:  what happens when humans collectively respond to constraints (the big stuff on a social, environmental, economic, etc.  scale).

So what’s the connection?  It’s about understanding what the boundaries are by way of the underlying human and cultural context so you can create the change.

You must push against boundaries to understand the deep underpinnings that are reinforcing them. This understanding helps you empathize to facilitate meaningful and necessary change and ultimately growth .  Empathy is, after all, the energy that allows us to motivate others.

Essentially, the hypothesis is that growth can only come from pushing the boundaries.

But there is an art and science to this which is why the study and application of insights regarding human and cultural context is so important: anthropology, sociology, worldview science (shout out to my buddy John Marshal Roberts), etc.   I knew that concentration in deviant behavior for my MA in Applied Sociology had a purpose.  🙂  My graduate coordinators would be so proud.

By the way, there is a rub here.  That being, this definitely applies on a macro-scale but it also  implies that we have to push our own personal boundaries in order to push the social ones.  Reminds me of a quote from a book I read recently called Fascinate that said something along the lines of “you can be extraordinary or comfortable but not both”.  Dammit.  😉

This is the most narcissistic thing I’ll write all week. Glad I decided to find an appropriate venue for it rather than the notes file on my iPhone that  I typed while driving (apologies to my wife).

I am thinking this might be a frame for something bigger – maybe “the book”.

Any feedback or research direction from my peers?  I have a reading list started as well as a list of “stuff” to go back to with more of a focused eye, but would love any direction my intelligent and talented peers and colleagues have to give.

5 thoughts on “Culture, Pushing Boundaries and Change

  1. This reminds me of my last job. The company I worked for, a major Fortune 50 corporation in the Midwest, was undergoing some serious internal change with implications for the present and the future at all levels of the organization. Yet, it seemed to be “undergoing change” while also trying to maintain a connection to traditional values and norms without examining which ones were good, healthy and effective, and which ones were not. I’m talking about things like of power dynamics, hierarchy, top-down efforts, processes, bureaucratic measures, etc.

    As an anthropologist, I felt that a deeper understanding of this culture and how it was changing, as well as how this change affected people, was needed, in order to figure out what was useful and important to keep, and what could be thrown out for something new in order to be more effective overall. Sadly, there was never really a chance that the higher-ups would be interested in this because their priorities were elsewhere (i.e. dolla bills).

    When there is no interest in examining boundaries or cultural underpinnings to incite more effective change, can real, good, positively disruptive change occur? How sustainable is it when change is incited only by a select few and negatively impacts key stakeholders within an organization?

    1. You’re right, Amy. Most companies don’t take he time to take a look at their culture, resulting boundaries and ultimate impact on the collective when they talk about change. And they tend to look at change as an inherently mathematical issue – dimensionalized in organizational flow charts and EBIDTA dollars – not human factors.

      BUT the companies that DO spend the time and money to look at those things (or build their organizations based on those things from the ground up) are the ones that tend to grow and be more successful.

      If you haven’t read it yet, check out Jim Stengel’s book, Grow- on ideals based brands / companies. An affirming read for us anthropological business types. 🙂

  2. So I think that the dude has almost been overcited, but I continue to find a lot of good things to think about in all of this from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus.

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