Action Changes Culture

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting – Millard Fuller. 

To many in management, culture seems like a soft topic best left to Human Resources or Communications . To this mindset, culture is a matter of getting the words right, saying the right things and having the right tools & programs to change culture. Culture change is a communications issue. Often this results in culture change programs dictated by senior management with a goal of uniformity of culture in the organisation. These approaches at best fail quickly and at worst are counterproductive, generating employee cynicism.

Culture doesn’t work this way. Culture arises in a group of people when there is an expected pattern to interactions. The expectation forms from a consistent and predictable pattern of actions. Rituals are a classic example of how culture is transmitted. Words may help us to notice a change and tools may enable new actions but only the actions done consistently create the new mindsets.

The focus on expectations and actions also highlights how unlikely uniformity is. With consistent behaviour to shape expectations groups may develop a commonality of expectation. However uniformity of expectations remains unlikely. There will always be local variations for good reason. A good reason may be that a different pattern of action is better at fulfilling the organisation’s purpose or customer needs in this context. The heart of embracing diversity as an organisation is understanding these variations and leveraging them too

Expectations cannot be imposed. Begin with discovery of the expectations and the actions that really exist. Be honest. Failure to accept reality won’t help. Creating change then becomes a matter of understanding how to change actions to consistently deliver new patterns and to shape different expectations.

I am often asked ‘how does an enterprise social network change culture?’ There is no universal answer to that question. There are no guaranteed changes in expectations and actions in an enterprise social network just as there is no universal culture. Enterprise social networks in the right circumstances enable transparency, leadership, learning, problem solving, innovation and enablement of people. Where the culture is hostile to these things they do not, without significant investment in changing the way people act and interact.

Better questions are ‘what actions and interactions in our culture will be facilitated by an enterprise social network? How can we encourage these actions to become more consistent? What would these actions do for the expectations of our people as to how we behave here?’ These questions focus attention on the hard work of creating consistency in a community of new and different actions.

The impact of culture on the actions and interactions in the organisation is ultimately why Peter Drucker famously said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Strategy that hopes for action inconsistent with the culture’s expectations will fail.

Start new and different actions now. Start small. Build new habits. Experiment with new ways of working. Action matters

Action creates culture. Focus on the actions, not the words or the tools.

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