What It Really Means to Begin Something

When organizations do work on their culture, they frequently want to rush to action. When we show them the results of our culture assessment, for example, it often leads immediately to a discussion about what should be done about it. Our Agility scores are more traditional than the rest of our Markers? Then we need to do something about change management. We need to fix XYZ process that’s getting in the way. Things like that.

And believe me, I love the idea of taking action when it comes to culture change, but when I hear our clients moving right to action, I actually put on the brakes a bit. To explain why, let me do what I rarely seen done in conversations of management and leadership: bring in a quote from Goethe:

Whatever you can do
Or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius
Power and magic in it.

You might argue that Goethe’s quote is supporting our clients’ desire to take action, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. Goethe didn’t say “action” has genius, power, and magic. He said “boldness” has that.

For me, “boldness” requires a certain amount of clarity, where “action,” does not. Boldness implies you know what you’re doing, and you know why you’re doing it. Action can be somewhat random or arbitrary. And while I think there can be a place for random/arbitrary action, it does not have the genius, power, and magic that boldness does.

So when our clients want to rush to action planning, I slow them down and get them focused on first creating what we call “Culture Priorities.” These priorities articulate not only what parts of the culture require attention right now, they also clarify WHY they need attention. Once you get clear on that, THEN you can start designing interventions to move the needle. With that clarity comes boldness, and only then, as Goethe puts it, can you “begin” it.

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