Stop trying to transform culture – build on existing strengths

Stop trying to transform culture – build on existing strengths

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 ValuesThe 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 on social media.

*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

About the Author

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Eryc Eyl

Eryc Eyl is committed to improving the human experience of work and business. With decades of experience in diverse roles and industries, as well as certifications in customer experience, organizational culture, and change management, he brings a research-based, empowering message that can transform the role that work plays for individuals and society. Eryc has helped nonprofit and for-profit organizations in a variety of industries improve experiences for their customers and employees while improving their effectiveness. He speaks, advises, and consults widely on human experience, driven by a deeply held belief that work can be more than just another four-letter word.