Book excerpt: Brave New Work

Written by Aaron Dignan on 5 March 2019 in Features
Features

We take an excerpt from Aaron Dignan's new book Brave New Work.

Having had an epiphany about the future of work, it is tempting to march back into the office and announce that things are going to change around here, even before you read on. Because that’s what leaders do, right? They inspire us. They push us into the unknown.

Resist that urge. In fact, do the opposite. Stop.

There is something paradoxical about what you’re about to do. You’re trying to lead your organisation to a place where you’re not the leader anymore, at least not in the way you are today.

  • How do you get people who have been managed all their lives to suddenly self-manage?
  • How do you get a culture that is addicted to planning and control to realise there are better ways to manage risk?
  • How do you get leaders whose identities and egos are wrapped up in status and position to realise that this power is not the source of their value?

These questions and dozens more are going to confound you.

We can’t change the hearts and minds of 10,000 people with a haiku.

In the coming pages, I’ll share a straightforward process for safely and continuously evolving your OS. But first, if you really want to change—if you really feel compelled to reinvent your way of working—then you’re going to need a lot more than a process or a checklist. You’re going to need to forget everything you know about how cultural transformation happens in organisations.

The Culture Conundrum

Faced with so many radical and exciting possibilities, you’re probably contemplating another conundrum: how to change your culture. Yes, culture, that most powerful and misunderstood word that beckons like a siren. It’s at the beginning and end of every deep conversation about organisational success, isn’t it?

As the popular slogan says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” More potent than strategy, and yet still so elusive.

 

It’s the one word in business that means everything and nothing. Author Seth Godin defines it as the story we tell ourselves. “People like us do things like this,” he says. It’s that simple, and that hard. The role culture appears to play in success and failure has led to a widespread belief that it’s something we can and should direct—something we can change. 

But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what culture is. Culture can’t be controlled or designed. It emerges. It isn’t happening to people; it’s happening among people. Author Niels Pflaeging explains the inscrutable with a powerful metaphor: “Culture is like a shadow: You cannot change it, but it changes all the time. Culture is read-only.”

Nevertheless, every year leaders valiantly attempt a miracle: to fix or change their cultures with PowerPoint and promises.

Spoiler alert: these programs don’t work.



Several years ago, I consulted as part of the team that refreshed the values (known internally as 'beliefs') at a global industrial company. The values reflected what we, a team of fewer than ten, believed was right for the other 300,000-plus people who worked there. The output was just five sentences, but the rollout of those sentences took years.

Countless hours and millions of dollars were spent trying to encourage employees to live the values. In the end, did everyone 'stay lean to go fast', as one of the values suggested? Not as much as we would have liked. And I don’t blame them. A platitude is not an epiphany.

We can’t change the hearts and minds of 10,000 people with a haiku. When culture proves too amorphous, we turn to simpler adversaries. Leaders say, 'Our people are the problem!' And the people say, 'Our leaders are the problem!' And so we attempt a second miracle: changing one another.

But again, this is a misunderstanding of human nature. People are complex. We grow and change in our own way, in our own time. As Ben Franklin once said, “Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you’ll understand what little chance you have in trying to change others.”

 

About the author

Aaron Dignan is the author of Brave New Work

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