Stop trying to transform culture – build on existing strengths

Marcus Buckingham

During a recent keynote, Jeb Dasteel, Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer at Oracle Corporation, said something that gave me pause. “Don’t try to change the culture,” Dasteel urged the hundreds of change agents gathered in a hotel conference room. “Exploit it.”

Dasteel went on to explain that, while building a customer experience strategy inside Oracle — a company that had historically valued its intellectual property more than its customers, he chose to leverage the prevailing engineering mindset instead of trying to change the organizational culture, as so many of us might be tempted to do. “I couldn’t change the culture if I wanted to,” he said.

So he engaged the engineers and brilliant minds throughout Oracle to help design, implement, and systematize new behaviors that fit well with the existing culture.

The cultural grass is not always greener
This made me think: What might be possible if we stopped trying to transform organizational cultures, and instead, started leveraging them? Clients often tell me, “We need to transform our culture.” Some want to be more innovative, while others want to be more consistent. Some want to be more results driven, and others want to be more fun. The cultural grass, it seems, is always greener.  But what if we let the grass grow where it’s planted, and the change agents among us simply acted as landscapers — keeping the grass looking beautiful?

 A strengths-based approach to culture change
Donald Clifton and Marcus Buckingham’s groundbreaking 2001 book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, introduced the concept of strengths-based development, advocating that, when trying to help people achieve their maximum potential, it was far more effective to focus on leveraging their strengths than on remedying their weaknesses.

The resulting StrengthsFinder approach begins by helping individuals identify the unique strengths they bring to the table, and then uses those strengths to help individuals maximize their contributions and achievements. Weaknesses don’t really come into the process at all.

A strengths-based approach to organizational culture is, in part, a matter of perspective. Instead of seeing the cultural glass as half empty, we see it as half full. Instead of carping on about everything that’s wrong with the organizational culture, we focus on everything that’s right. We should work with culture, instead of against it.

This is not, however, a matter of simply leaving well enough alone. If the current organizational culture isn’t getting the organization where it needs to go, intervention might be necessary. But where traditional culture change often focuses on stopping old practices and starting new ones, a strengths-based approach to managing culture would instead concentrate its efforts on figuring out how to better use — amplify, optimize, intensify — the culture’s most helpful existing attributes.

 A framework for thinking about strengths-based culture assessment and change
One powerful framework that can help senior leaders and middle managers take a strengths-based approach to managing change is the Competing Values Framework developed by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn.

Competing Values PictureThe Competing Values Framework embraces two key tensions that exist in organizations — between internal focus/integration and external focus/differentiation, and between the need for stability and the need for flexibility. The internal / external and stable / flexible structure has been used for other models. These two tensions, plotted as axes on a two-by-two grid, create four quadrants:

  • Adhocracy: With high external focus and a high degree of flexibility, this culture is ideally suited to innovation.
  • Market: With high external focus and a high degree of stability, this culture is ideally suited to competition.
  • Clan: With high internal focus and a high degree of flexibility, this culture is ideally suited to creating an inclusive, family-like environment.
  • Hierarchy: With high internal focus and a high degree of stability, this culture is ideally suited to controlled, predictable performance.

 Exploit the culture’s strengths instead of trying to remedy its weaknesses
The Competing Values Framework provides a structure for organizations to understand where their current and preferred cultures fit, whether this is accomplished through an assessment or discussion. Leaders should focus on the areas of overlap between the current and preferred cultures in order for culture change to feel like evolution instead of revolution, like reformation instead of transformation. This will make the necessary changes less scary and decrease resistance.

For example, let’s say that your organization needs to shift generally from a predominantly clan-like culture, or predominately internal and flexible, to one that is more market-driven, or predominately external and flexible. Perhaps the organization currently defines success based on development of and investment in employees (a clan-like thing to do), but leadership has a no-nonsense, results-oriented focus (a market-driven thing to do). A strengths-based approach to culture change would use that leadership style to help pull the organization toward a definition of success based on winning market share.

A strengths-based approach to culture change for Ford and Jaguar*
When Ford Motor Company’s Premier Automobile Group decided to transform the Halewood, England, manufacturing site from a Ford Escort factory for economy cars into a Jaguar X 400 factory for luxury cars, leadership knew it that a pretty significant culture change would be necessary. Within three years, the company made changes to organizational structure, leadership and management styles, communication processes, the physical plant, and personnel to facilitate this change. Within seven years of beginning this transformation, the plant was winning accolades from J.D. Power, and outperforming its competitors. It’s no coincidence that this cultural change built on the plant’s existing strengths.

One of the key changes that Jaguar needed to make was the implementation of a lean manufacturing process. This approach to work requires front line workers to take responsibility for continuously improving the efficiency and effectiveness of their plant. The level of empowerment, proactivity, and flexibility required was a far cry from the hierarchical, passive, and stable work style to which the Halewood workers had become accustomed.

Highlight the cultural strength
In support of this shift, Halewood adopted a new set of aspirational values to guide workers’ behavior. These values included customer focus, accountability, respective, communication, teamwork, and flexibility. There was one additional value that would be familiar and comfortable for the Halewood workforce: quality.

Long a rallying cry of Ford Motor Company, quality would also become the familiar touchstone that Halewood employees could use as a North Star while sailing the otherwise-uncharted seas of cultural change. While making Ford Escorts, these employees would have been encouraged to keep their eyes on product quality, and that would be no different as they began making Jaguars. Focusing on quality would help workers know when they needed to make changes to work processes, would provide management with a yardstick against which to evaluate their decisions, and would ensure the organization continued to produce the best vehicles possible. Quality was the cultural strength that the Jaguar management team could leverage to make the cultural shift less disorienting and abrupt, to minimize resistance to the change, and to accelerate the factory’s evolution.

When culture change is necessary, discover your strengths
Clearly, cultural change — and even transformation — is sometimes necessary. If an organization isn’t getting the results it needs, it’s likely that it needs to change something about its leadership, management, strategy, or success criteria. But it’s far too facile — and ineffective — to take a deficit-based approach to culture change, pointing out all the flaws and shortcomings of the current culture. It’s much more powerful to first assess the culture’s strengths and, as Jeb Dasteel suggests, exploit them.

Do you agree it’s better to build on the strengths of a culture instead of focusing on “transforming” them? Why and do you have any examples or experiences to share? Please comment below.

*Addy, Nii Armah (2013). Leading Change in Management: A Case Study of Jaguar/Halewood. International Journal of ICT and Management, volume 1, issue 1. Retrieved from http://ijictm.org/admin/html/mail/attach/2013-02-25-11-06-59.pdf

 

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Eryc Eyl is a writer, speaker, coach and consultant focused on improving the human experience of work for leaders, employees and customers. He helps working folks integrate their work with a meaningful, fun and fulfilling life so they can keep their heads and their hearts while keeping their jobs. For more from Eryc, visit www.ErycEyl.com, or connect with Eryc on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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

  • Carmen Sasser

    Wonderful job taking a popular concept we embrace as a part of leadership development and translating it into an applicable philosophy for organizations to consider. I’m a big advocate for strengths-based leadership, but shamefully it has never occurred to me that companies should follow the same approach. Though I would say transformation is still a good thing. Perhaps we should focus more on transforming the way we work rather than the culture of our organizations.

    • http://www.eryceyl.com/ Eryc Eyl

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Carmen! No shame at all. When I heard Jeb Dasteel’s words, I was amazed it had never occurred to me. And I like your twist — transforming the way we work just might be within reach.

  • josephlogan

    Carmen, I share your chagrin at never having thought about culture this way, and that’s why I think this article is absolutely brilliant. I approach the level of nihilism on the matter of culture transformation, and that comes from over 20 years of study in the behavior of organizations. The level of effort and consistency required to transform a culture is much harder than it would be for me to change my personality, and I would take a dim view on either. The notion that we could build on the best parts of the current state, though? Counterintuitive and clever. Encouraging people to do more of the things they do well and most likely enjoy seems a much more efficient way to build a great culture.

    • http://www.eryceyl.com/ Eryc Eyl

      Thanks, Joseph! As you know well, it sometimes helps to view things upside down and backwards to see what’s truly possible, and that’s why I was so attracted to the idea of strengths-based culture change. And I wouldn’t recommend you transform your personality either!

  • http://www.crossculturework.com Karen Smits

    Congratulations on this wonderful article! I’ve completed a Ph.D. on intercultural collaboration and when I began I was startled by how many academics and practitioners focus on the cultural differences, or the cultural gap. I know it’s importante to map these, but I strongly feel that the focused should shift to cultural similarities. It’s much easier to build bridges, to facilitate integration, and to transform cultures, if we know on what aspects we think alike. It’s also more fun to focus on what we have in common than to stress how we are different. So I completely agree with the idea to build on existing strengths! Well said, Eryc. Let’s put this into practice!

    • http://www.eryceyl.com/ Eryc Eyl

      Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective, Karen! It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? On the one hand, you don’t want to create larger rifts by emphasizing differences. On the other hand, you don’t want to minimize the significance of those differences. That is often the kiss of death with cultural integrations in the corporate sector. I think we’ll get the best results if we can honor differences while focusing on strengths. Thanks again!