How to build culture muscle and improve engagement, ownership, and results

Courage and Muscle

Leaders often struggle with managing approaches to improve engagement and ownership as part of a process that directly impacts results.  Company meetings, one-off engagement activities, and other approaches might work but there is a technique you should build into the fabric of your organization. It’s a relatively simple but powerful process that supports improved engagement, ownership, accountability, and results but some discipline and consistency are required.

The building culture muscle process
The concept of “building culture muscle” is extremely powerful and includes four very basic steps:

  1. Engage a team in brainstorming specific improvements related to a top strategic priority, problem, challenge, or goal.
  2. Prioritize the top ideas as a team with no big analysis.
  3. Translate the top ideas to SMART goals for ongoing tracking.
  4. Track progress as a management team but intensely focus on supporting actions related to the goals and visibly recognize positive progress as a team.

Build Culture Muscle

The first time the process is used there might be some hesitancy or even fear in some form about what issues and ideas employees feel comfortable raising.  Edgar Schein, a leading workplace culture expert, has highlighted that “upward communication is faulty in most organizations.”  This process helps build the environment to improve communication, focus, and ownership if leaders truly listen, take action on the top ideas from the overall group, and integrate the approach as a habit in the overall operating model.

Ruth Gordon said “courage is like a muscle; we strengthen it by use.”  If there is positive action in response to the first time the approach is used then participants are more comfortable raising deeper issues and more progressive ideas the next time around – it’s like a muscle.  This process is dramatically different than brainstorming a list of “ideas” and then leaders deciding what action to take.  Every participant ends up judging whether the “right” ideas are translated to the “right” actions.  The key is the prioritization step as a group to build ownership.

I have used the process hundreds of times and there are many details that help increase the likelihood you will experience positive results.

Different than brainstorming
My favorite approach to build this capability quickly is an “involvement meeting.”  The purpose is to engage the participants in clarifying priorities or plans as a team related to key strategies or goals.  An involvement meeting should include a few leadership levels of the organization at a minimum but the concepts works with individual leadership teams and other groups.  Some organizations have top 100 meetings or even larger company meetings to engage personnel from many locations while small businesses might engage all of their employees.

Break-out groups are identified to engage in feedback and prioritization as a team related to supporting goals or actions for a major strategic priority.

I like utilizing appreciative inquiry techniques with a focus on strengths and creating the future when defining the break-out questions versus problem solving approaches to “fix” various areas.  An example: it’s 12 months from now and we have dramatically improved our customer service.  What were the specific improvements we focused on as a team to achieve this result?

The following routine seems to work best to facilitate these break-out activities:

  • Each team works together to answer a positively-worded question about identifying priorities to improve a particular area of the organization (a strategic priority or a major supporting priority)
  • Each team brainstorms specific improvement options and lists them on a flip chart (no long debates).
  • Each team then agrees, typically through a vote, on the top 2-3 priorities for improvement and identifies each on the flip chart (circle, identify with star, etc.)
  • Each team briefly reports out on only their top 2-3 priorities (only 2-4 minutes per team)
  • Feedback from all teams is consolidated on a few flip charts (only the top 2-3 priorities identified from each team)
  • The flip charts are posted in a central area and all attendees vote on the overall priorities for improvement (using stickers or markers during a break or over lunch).
  • Multiple strategic priorities or improvement areas may be covered in one meeting. It’s often effective to use one break-out activity to select a key priority and to follow it up with another break-out on the top improvement actions for that priority.

The leader’s role – listen, learn, and lead!
The involvement meeting approach isn’t giving up leadership and letting the organization run everything.  It’s very important for leaders to “set the stage” for discussion about each subject so the break-out activities have the right focus without crushing them with lots of boundaries and their own opinions.  The leader must listen, learn and lead.

I have attempted to think through the priorities I thought my organization would highlight as part of the process.  It never ceases to amaze me how this process naturally covers the obvious priorities but the participants typically go beyond the obvious and highlight new insights and approaches that make a tremendous impact on plans going forward.

Leadership must focus on translating priorities from the meeting to SMART goals and make sure habits or routines are in place for ongoing review, communication, and recognition as progress is made.  It’s important to note that these are not the “only” goals but they should be an integral part of improvement plans because the organization defined these priorities as a group.

Most of us have been in those “big meetings” where great actions were captured only to see them fade away with no real change.  The involvement meeting should end with the top leader clarifying the next steps about how the priorities will be translated to specific goals and plans.  They should also clarify how the organization will be updated on progress with a high level of visibility and focus.  We held an involvement meeting every six months and monthly communications meetings / webcasts to keep our team on the same page with overall priorities, plans, and our current progress.

The Payoff
Your work on these initial goals will develop the “culture-building muscle” of your organization and enable you to effectively engage your team on countless other priorities and goals in the future if it’s ongoing part of your operating model.  Groups at all levels of the organization learn how to brainstorm and prioritize quickly as they see it done successfully on your most significant priorities.  Tremendous pride is built when the organization successfully manages a major priority as a team and everyone learns from the journey together.

What do you think about the building culture muscle concept? What best practices have you used to quickly build ownership with a group?

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Tim Kuppler is the founder of and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.

Human Synergistics is home of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the 90 Day Ultimate Culture and Performance Quick Start Program, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

He authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm. He is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on

His 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts. Email him to learn more about options to help you understand and evolve your culture with a direct and sustainable impact on performance.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kimberly Wiefling

    Elegantly simple and powerful! Teams that take responsibility for their own situation, and for improving their circumstances, are far better off that those waiting for “answers from above”. The fact is that every level in a hierarchical organization looks up to the next level and wonders when “they” will solve their problems for them. Well, folks, it’s time to realize that the person in the mirror is the person most likely to understand your situation, and to take the initiative to improve it. Think BIG. Start small. Move fast. Prototype, don’t perfect. Fail forward, learning from mistakes. Woooohoooo!

    • Tim Kuppler

      Wow, I feel your enthusiasm from just reading your comments. The “muscle” concept applies for groups and individuals. It may take a little courage or trying something new but that’s far better than waiting for those “answers from above” that may never come. I also fully agree with the think big / start small / move fast!