You Can’t Engineer Culture Change!

Sometimes people approach everything as an engineering problem.

While this can work very well, not everything can be engineered, some things are emergent – they are a property of the system. This means you can’t engineer them directly, you need to instead create the conditions that encourage the properties you want.

That’s how organisational culture works and I wish more people knew it.

Culture Change is a people-challenge, not engineering

Culture can’t be engineered per se – it is what emerges in response to the environment, ceremonies and systems in a business.

It’s as much about the little things that affect people’s work day-to-day as it is about grand principles and high-profile initiatives. Above all, it’s about people, their attitudes and how they behave.

Leaders play an important role in culture change – but it isn’t the one they normally have in mind. It’s not about ‘addressing the people’ like a Roman Emperor and telling everyone to change.

Instead it’s about embodying the culture they have in mind and showing the way with actions not words.

Just as the fastest way to destroy trust in the leadership is ‘do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do’, so the fastest way to build it is ‘do-as-I-do-put-actions-above-words’.

So leaders need to spend their time inside the business, learning what’s actually happening on the ground, listening, learning and then encouraging and supporting changes that enable and grow the culture they want to see.

Leaders who say they care and listen (& want this in the culture) are better off doing that than saying it – if they do it, they won’t need to say it, it will advertise itself.

Leaders who say their door is always open are better off opening it, getting out of the office, listening and learning rather than waiting for problems to fester and grow before they come to them.

Leaders who say they want more innovation are better off innovating in the ways they work and interact with their people first before they lecture others on its importance.

Leaders who say they are ok with experiments that fail can best make that convincing by experimenting and publicly failing themselves before they exhort others to do so.

I’ve written before about how many leaders are not doing the right job: Leaders: stop making decisions and start leading instead.

We need a revolution in our understanding of what leadership means and how culture change works.

Posted in Leadership, Strategy.

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