This article is based on a case study of a large engineering-based organisation that faced a strategic crisis and needed to change its culture, as that culture was getting in the way of its business objectives. The case study was published in a special edition of the Project Management Journal,¹ presented at a webinar to Engineers Australia,² and the subject of a LinkedIn webinar.
The old culture centred around a very traditional and rigid interpretation of engineering standards, whereas the new culture wanted to achieve the same standards but be more innovative and challenge traditional thinking when business outcomes were at stake.
The old culture didn’t go out without a fight though. In fact, there was a culture war, which for researchers is absolute gold, because my co-researchers and I were really interested in resistance behaviour, in other words, what went through the minds of those who pushed back against the dominant narrative as they resisted those in power.
The stereotype is that engineers can’t do culture change, or at least are worse than most. Let me take that argument apart for you and show you where I think it’s wrong.
The argument runs like this. Most engineers are men, men are more interested in things and people, culture change requires good people skills and so engineers have little chance of being any good at culture change.
While it’s true that most engineers are men and the literature says men are more interested in things than people, it’s the next point in the argument where things go wrong. While it’s true that people skills help, it’s importance can be over played.
What can be overlooked in behaviour change is the ability to change context, rather than people, and so there’s great potential for engineers as change agents.
Engineers are very good at building things, and behaviour change requires structure change. This argument runs counter to the stereotype and says that if engineers focus on what they're really good at, which is building things, they could be really great at change.
Let me explain this through the case study.
My argument is that in order to change behaviour one build structures, those structures change context and context changes behaviour. In the case of the organisation that I studied there were some real business problems. There was a strategic crisis and culture was getting in the way of this organisation achieving their strategy and deliverables.
In summary they needed to increase capital expenditure or capex delivery six-fold on a year-on-year basis. The bad news was that while they secured the extra funding, most people in senior management didn't think that they were capable of delivering it, because of culture.
Build structures, change context, change behaviour
Some culture change initiatives target beliefs directly with people skills and are not that effective, because much of how we behave depends on the situation we’re in, habit or by the subconscious forces we are either unaware of or don’t understand.
Structure is defined in the broadest sense here, such as social structures, like who gets to park where, pay and incentive schemes, flexible work arrangements, and IT systems. They underpin context, which is the situation you find yourself in.
And though behaviour change affects everybody, we’re all different. Who you are has a big impact on how you behave.
To summarise, to change behaviour one needs to build structures that change context and so change behaviour. In other words, looking at the diagram on the right-hand side, if one starts at the top in terms of changing context and not in the middle around changing beliefs that's a more effective way of delivering behaviour change which is what results in the end.
So why you would want to change culture?
Let’s talk about the organisation at the centre of the case study.
Business problems drive the need for culture change
It had been in a very stable environment. Arguably it hadn’t changed much for 50 to 60 years, and its internal organisation was fairly well aligned with its external environment, which was slow moving. The internal environment as a result was conservative, it was hierarchical, and it was bureaucratic. That description might sound critical but in managing a very long-term significant asset base, it makes sense to be conservative. Mistakes can be extremely costly, so a conservative long-term approach is a very good fit with that environment.
Because it's an engineering organisation competency is crucial. It must be easier to spot a less than stellar engineer than most other professions. And by and large the more competent people should rise to the top even if it is through experience. So, there's a tendency for an engineering organisation in a stable environment to be hierarchical based on competency, or its proxy, seniority, the more senior people controlling what the more junior people do largely because there's a need to be conservative.
The combination of all those means that the organisation is also slow moving and bureaucratic. But that culture had served the organisation well in the past and aligned well with its external environment. The problem was that there was a strategic crisis, and in this case the response to the crisis meant that they had to increase CapEx sixfold. So, we had a new environment which effectively stranded the old corporate culture hence the need for culture change.
In this case the organisation needed to change from being conservative hierarchical and bureaucratic to being innovative responsive and pragmatic and they were they were aspects of culture that just did not fit or were quite knew to the organisation.
A physical example of where the old and new cultures met head on was the construction of large structures which had traditionally been built of steel, but since the lead time for the appropriate steel was several months, the timeline was in real danger. The old culture as displayed by some senior engineering staff was – too bad, the project will have to be delayed while we order the steel. A young engineer working alongside an alliance contractor came up with an alternative approach to delivering the same outcomes, but made of re-enforced concrete rather than steel, which was cheaper and crucially much faster than steel construction. But the old culture refused to concede to the new design and insisted that the project be delayed, and the tanks be made of steel. This is an example of culture no longer serving an organisation but blocking it.
So why is targeting beliefs directly not very effective? After all it’s quite a common approach for individuals and their behaviour to be targeted directly through coaching and mentoring, or by a change management plan.
Targeting beliefs directly is not very effective
Beliefs are an important element, but one of many parts of culture. This diagram is based on Edgar Schein’s seminal work on culture and displays culture in three layers.
The top two layers are visible, the top layer being artefacts or observed behaviour. Artefacts could be for example posters on the walls about safety for instance, or they could be the layout of the office. It could be whether senior managers have executive assistants, and if those assistants sit outside their bosses’ doors, acting as gatekeepers. It could be who gets to have a private office and who doesn’t or whether there are dedicated car parks. These things are tangible, observable and are underpinned by peoples’ beliefs, values, and goals in the organisation.
So, for instance the beliefs, values and goals are very different in a merchant bank than they are in a in a not for profit, about recognition and reward, or competition within the organisation.
What's not visible and what drives much of our behaviour, yet is not accessible even to the individuals themselves, are their habits and unconscious drivers. They are extremely difficult to explore, barely understood, yet have a significant influence on behaviour. The point is that if one tries to target beliefs directly, what is missing is the source of those beliefs, many of which are habitual or unconscious, or just taken for granted, not accessible. And the artefacts and organisational behaviour that sit on top of them, pushing beliefs back into place.
But this structure is not the only reason why targeting beliefs directly is not very effective.
The second difficulty with targeting beliefs directly is that they are unbelievably complex things. And a “coaching session” could either miss or misunderstand much of this. What’s shown here is a simplified version, based on Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour.
Ajzen’s view is that beliefs are made up of three elements. Norms, which is a combination of how you are expected to behave and how you actually behave, those two things being quite different. In other words, don't do as I do, do as I say. Attitudes, which is a combination of how you feel about a behaviour versus how good you think that behaviour will be for you. In other words, we're prepared to put up with some short-term pain around a behaviour if it gives us a long-term benefit, and clearly there's some personal differences and how those trade-offs are managed.
And thirdly control which is the capacity and the challenge involved in undertaking your behaviour so each of those three elements have two components of the two components within them.
The three key elements of beliefs are dependent on or driven by background factors such as organisation context, which is what we're talking about here, personality which will be covered shortly, indirect power, because power has the ability to build structures and then influence beliefs, particularly norms. Direct power on the other hand exists in the form of punishment or rewards. A kind of norm about norms if you like. In other words, there are real consequences for rules for abiding by or breaking norms.
This is a very simplified model, yet you can see that beliefs are unbelievably complex. What chance have you got of changing them with a couple of coaching sessions from someone who believes passionately about the virtues of being authentic, or vulnerable?
Changing context changes behaviour
To repeat, changing context changes behaviour and here are two examples of how that works. One is that judges make different decisions depending on the time of day. You would think that lawyers and judges who've been trained extensively in the law and have come up through the ranks would be largely impartial and objective. Unfortunately, not it seems!
A study found that you are between two and six times more likely to be released if you are one of the first three appearance before the judge rather than the last. So, it pays to appear early because a favourable ruling is much more likely early in the day or after a meal or a break than later in the day and when it's been a long time since they've been break. Even the time-of-day influences something as consequential as a judicial decision.
Secondly the one that we all know fairly well is that questions framed positively results in different decisions than when framed negatively. This is called prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky who popularised it in their book Thinking Fast and Slow.³ The research asked a question about a treatment in response to a pandemic which is oddly ironic. And depending on how the question was framed, decisions changed.
Judges make different decisions depending on the time of day
Those charged are 2 to 6 times more likely to be released if they are one of the first three versus one of the last three of the day.
Favourable rulings peaks early in the day after a meal or break.
Questions framed positively results in different decision that if framed negatively
Positive: Saves 200 Lives
Negative: 400 people will die
Positive: 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% chance of saving no one
Negative: 33% chance that no one will die, 66% chance all 600 will die
72% chose treatment A when framed as positive versus 22% when framed negatively
So, for instance if treatment was framed positively, as A - saving 200 lives versus B - 33% chance of saving 600 lives, treatment A was preferred, but if it was framed negatively, or that 400 people would die or 33% that no one will die then treatment B was preferred. People will decide differently depending on how decisions are framed. I’m sure you can think of business cases on models that were presented in certain lights so that the required decision was made. This is a good example of context change.
And while it's taken as true in the behavioural sciences, that changing context changes behaviour, we all react differently, and one of the reasons for this is personality.
But we’re all different
There are five key elements to our personality as described by the Big Five instrument also known as OCEAN, the acronym ocean stands for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
We know quite a bit about what predicts compliance, but less about resistance. So, for instance people who are more agreeable are more compliant than others, not surprisingly. And people who are more conscientious are more compliant too, but perhaps for different reasons. But we don’t know as much about resistance, and there’s even a debate about whether extraversion is associated with resistance than compliance, but that could be to do with the underlying aspects of extraversion namely enthusiasm and assertiveness, which might pull in somewhat different directions.
But we were really interested in resistance and didn’t have much support from the literature, so what happened to this organisation?
Change structure, change context, change behaviour
They made four key changes.
- First, they started to measure culture with a well validated culture instrument.
- Second, they entered alliance contracts for most of their project work.
- Third, their internal engineers and project managers worked alongside alliance project managers and engineers in project-based teams, and were co-located away from their normal office environment, rather than working in silos.
- And fourth, unacceptable behaviour was policed. In other words, people who pushed back against a more innovative approach to engineering standards were noticed and their behaviour was picked up.
Those four changes to context provided four strong cues that influenced beliefs. First, it became clear to people that they were being watched through the culture instrument. Second, the alliance contract environment with an injection of external capability meant that when traditional engineering approaches didn’t seem to be effective, they were encouraged to challenge and innovate. Third, because engineers and project managers were co-located, the cue or message was that there was to be no more silos. And co-location was the physical manifestation of that cue. Fourth, those who we're not listening or continuing to push back were punished.
In this case we had very senior management in engineering who were wedded to the idea that traditional engineering standards were set in stone and project delays were a legitimate consequence of sticking to that interpretation of engineering standards. Ultimately a number of senior engineering managers were asked to leave the organisation in a culmination of the culture war. While asking people to leave is a direct use of power, it also has a very strong indirect effect on those that remain. The clear message was that those who resisted too long and too hard would be punished, harshly. Sociologists call these sanctions, or norms about norms.
But the upshot was that capex increased six-fold. And the programs were delivered on time and to budget, within tolerance.
To see how this work, let’s take a look at what went through the minds of those who had to find their way through this cultural battlefield.
What went through the minds of those subject to change?
So first there was structure change that I've spoken about such as culture measurement, alliance contracting, colocation and boundaries being policed. Those changes resulted in the cues that I spoke about, namely that you're being watched, that you should challenge and innovate, that there should be no more silos, and that you will be punished if you resist too hard and too long.
So, in that context a number of norms were changed. The two types of norms we spoke about before where how people ought to behave, and how people actually behave.
Engineers and project managers in this case looked not only the messages from above about how they should behave but also how other people around them actually behaved.
In that environment, engineers and project managers asked, “ how do I feel about the behaviour that's being required of me here?” In other words, how do they feel about challenging traditional interpretations of the standards and innovating? And secondly did they think it was going to be worth their while? Was there a personal payoff with that behaviour? The combination of those two lead our engineers to have either a positive or a negative attitude towards behaving the way the new culture was asking them to behave.
Those who were in favour either complied or compromised and were rewarded and that behaviour fed back into norms as more and more people complied or compromised, putting further pressure on the attitudes of those who resisted.
Resisters initially had the attitude that they wanted to resist the new culture, particularly the challenge and innovate behaviour as they were determined to defend the traditional approaches to engineering solutions and so they pushed back. What happened though was that there was a feedback loop.
As more and more people actually behaved the way that senior management wanted them to, there was more and more social pressure on them. Though they initially felt it was going to be tough, they thought it was going to be worth the struggle, and to an extent that spoke to their identity as engineers.
But as that loop spun up, the weight of expectation that accumulated with each cycle bore down on them. The strain of continually pushing back harder to bear. And when they saw how other resisters were treated, they saw that the payoff for that suffering would not be worth it. As their attitudes were ground out, it became harder to push back. They suffered personal stress, they lost sleep, former mates began to socially isolate them, and so many were forced to throw in the towel. They’d had enough and so compromised.
An example of this was an engineer who was convinced that his calculations were right and that the efficiency of a plant he had designed should be 98%. But in order to do so it would make the construction of the plant more expensive than the alliance team could build it for.
Once again just as with the tanks a cultural battle broke out around the efficiency of this particular piece of plant. That engineer battled not only with senior management, but with the alliance and the rest of his team members, insisting that the efficiency of the plant should be at 98% versus the alliance at 95%. After too many sleepless nights, social isolation and being stranded by management, he settled on 96% efficiency, a kind of moral victory for him and a compromise that came at some cost.
There were others though who no matter how often they went around that loop of resisting did not change attitude to the point where senior management intervened and punished them by asking them to leave the organisation.
That's how structural change works that's what goes through the minds of people who when faced with culture change. If punishment is in place to enforce the new norms, you either comply, compromise, but at a personal psychological cost. Or else you go out on your shield. Crudely, the mechanisms are a combination of norms and attitudes, re-enforced with punishments or rewards.
Now that you've seen how individuals react, or what goes through the minds of those subject to change, the question is “So what should you build and how?”
So, what should you build and how?
The three-step methodology is define, design, and deliver.
In the first stage what you're trying to do is identify the culture gap. So, start by looking at the business problem. And it’s hard to over-emphasise this. Culture change for change’s sake, or that’s ideologically driven is a bad place to start. There needs to be value on the table, either in the form of preventing value loss or growing the business. Either way culture change has to be business problem driven if it’s not to degenerate into hollow corporate propaganda. In this case it was very plain, they needed to grow capex delivery six-fold in a very short time period, and culture was getting in the way.
What is it about the existing culture that's getting in the way of solving that business problem? How is it blocking strategy for instance? In our case the culture was bureaucratic and slow. And the third part of define is to look at what would the culture look like if it was to support or enhance or enable strategy or help solve the business problem. The new culture our organisation was looking for was innovative and collaborative.
Once the gap between existing and desired culture is understood, it’s time to bridge it. That happens in the second stage. What you need to do is link it back to the sources of cues that are causing the wrong behaviour. Ones which if changed would lead to the desired culture. This is what we call links to context. In our case one of those links was physical location. The other was a monopoly supply internal delivery team.
On the basis of that analysis, you can identify the structural levers to pull to change your culture. So, in this case when engineers were taken from their old desks and collocated with others in the organisation and mixed in with alliance contractors, much of the passive aggressive behaviour was confronted and worked out. Once you have a good understanding of which levers to pull, you can go to the next stage, Deliver.
Armed with the knowledge of which levers to pull you enter fairly standard project management territory, in that you develop a blueprint, in other words, work out the change at a detail level, and then roll on to implementation.
So now you’ve seen why change is best built through structure and what goes through the minds of those subject to it. Let me return to the question at the start of the presentation.
By focussing on things rather than people, engineers can be great change agents
Can engineers really be good change agents? The answer is yes.
Well engineers are interested in things and really good at building stuff. That's what engineering training and engineer’s personal preferences align to. It’s been argued that targeting individuals and their beliefs is not enough when it comes to changing behaviour for two reasons.
- There are so many drivers of behaviour that really aren't accessible to the individual or somebody external to the individual that it's very difficult to change.
- And context is a huge influence on behaviour to the extent that it's taken as axiomatic in the behavioural sciences, that in order to change behaviour one needs to change context.
The best way to change culture is not by focussing on people but building new structures which change context and change behaviour. So, by focusing on things rather than people, and building structures, engineers can be great agents of change.
1. Wynn, C., Smith, L. and Killen, C. (2021) 'How Power Influences Behavior in Projects: A Theory of Planned Behavior Perspective', Project Management Journal, 52(6), 607-621, see more
2. Wynn, C., (2021) Changing Culture in Engineering-based Organisations. Engineers Australia, see more
3. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow, Macmillan.