Culture can seem a nebulous concept and changing it too ephemeral for the pragmatic, solution-focussed individuals attracted to engineering as a career.
In this blog, I share nine practical steps that will help you get culture change moving in your engineering organisation.
Step 1: Get the Chief Executive on board
Don’t start culture change from the bottom or the middle of the organisation unless you want to make an already tough task just about impossible. You must have the Chief Executive leading from the beginning because they have a unique purpose – to be the role-model that others will follow. See The CEOs role in leading transformation.
When I am supporting culture change in any organisation, I always spend significant time with the Chief Executive up-front because I want to know they truly understand what it’s going to take to achieve the change.
To check if the Chief Executive is serious, find out if they will include culture change as an agenda item on Board meetings, discuss what scares them about the culture change and explore what changes they expect they personally will need to make.
If the answers to these are No, nothing and not many, then they haven’t really thought it through.
Make sure the answers are Yes, plenty and lots (with sufficient supporting detail) before you move.
Step 2: Get senior leaders on board
The Chief Exec can’t lead the change without the organisation’s senior leaders on board too. So, once you’ve got his or her full engagement, your focus moves to the senior leaders.
Essentially, all senior leaders need to be able to answer in the affirmative to the above questions as well.
And it’s crucial that every senior leader is expected to change in line with the culture change – there can be no exceptions – see point 9 for more on this one.
Step 3: Establish precise purpose and goals
Next, engage the Chief Exec and senior leaders in establishing the precise purpose and goals for the culture change. Chances are that, up to this point, these are still a bit woolly.
The purpose is the long-term vision and will be fixed from the start. It will give you a clear focus throughout the change.
The goals focus on specific results to achieve within a set time-frame and will be revised from time to time. They give you measures of progress as the culture change gets underway.
Step 4: Establish ways to maintain your own resilience
Changing culture takes time, energy and patience. You’re going to find your own motivation to keep going will wane.
To manage this, you need to put in place ways to maintain your resilience. When I was the in-house lead for major culture change, I found that visiting organisations that had already achieved similar change gave me a much-needed boost and new ideas for action as well.
Step 5: Create a clear, practical action plan
Culture change needs to be planned in the same way as any other project and having a clear plan will make it far easier to engage engineers throughout the organisation.
‘What do you want me to do?’ is the constant question engineers will ask. If you can’t outline clear, practical actions, they will quickly disengage.
Step 6: Get culture change on meeting agendas
In the most successful culture changes I see, it is treated seriously enough by all parts of the business to be a regular agenda item at Board meetings, Departmental meetings and team meetings.
If culture change is not on the agenda, then it isn’t seen as part of the ‘real business’– it isn’t as important as managing finance, new product design or expanding market opportunities.
Step 7: Implement training to build new skills
To create a new culture, you will need to change the skills of the people working in the culture. If you don’t do this, people will know they should do things differently but won’t necessarily have the skills to do so.
Start the process of building new skills early in the culture change and don’t let senior leaders off the hook. Too often, training focuses on middle managers and those who report to them.
Step 8: Measure progress
Get into the habit of measuring progress early on in the culture change and continue to do so throughout.
You will find that there are many times once underway when progress is incredibly slow or non-existant. At these times, reviewing the results that have been achieved to date will give you the confidence to keep going.
Don’t assume that you will recall everything that has been achieved if there are no clear measures of progress on record. You won’t!
Step 9: Challenge ‘sacred cows’
If you are serious about culture change, there can be no ‘sacred cows‘.
As the culture begins to change, you will need to challenge individuals, processes and habits that run counter to it. If you don’t, the message will quickly spread that this isn’t a really serious change.
There can be no exceptions.
Culture change is inevitably a bumpy road that will demand patience, resilience and energy. These nine steps are designed to remove some of the pain in the early stages as you get culture change up and running in your engineering organisation.