By Thomas A Stewart
A company's top management recently convened to a review an initiative that had fared as most initiatives: worse than hoped, better than feared. The so-so result stemmed from a stubborn problem: getting a fractious group of department and functional leaders to join hands for a company-wide project. One member of the senior team spoke out: "It's our freaking, gosh-darn culture!" he said. (Well, that's not exactly what he said.)
Ain't it the truth. Advantage is transient but companies are sticky: That's why smart strategy should start with your capabilities and then seek a market for them, rather than beginning from the pot of gold and hoping you can walk upon the rainbow to where you are. By the same token, in a conflict between strategy and culture, culture eventually wins. Always.
That being the case, the only way to succeed is to prevent a conflict between strategy and culture. I didn't say "change the culture." I said stop fighting it. Instead, leverage it, judo-wise. There is no revolution without cultural revolution. But cultural revolution, as Mao Tse-tung failed to understand, cannot be won if it's forced from above.
Don't change the unchangeable. Cultures exist because they work. They may have dysfunctional elements-most do-but a culture survives because it does the group more good than harm. (For example, if people are unfairly punished when things go wrong, avoiding accountability is a constructive, self-preservative adaptation.) Consequently, you can't change a culture without changing the circumstances that make it persist-e.g., without changing the work.
Change behaviours, not values. If "culture is how we do things around here," difference (and similarity) between capabilities and culture is this: Capabilities are the things we do well; culture is all the things we do, including those we do badly. So the way to start changing culture is to start with things you do well, change a few other key things for the better, and expand that beachhead. If you tell someone his values are screwed up, he'll tell you to screw yourself. Instead, insist on a few behaviors-greeting customers when they come onto the floor, making eye contact, saying thank you. Minds will follow.
Find your rebels and make their cause yours. In any company, some people are already doing what you want. Those are your peeps, the people Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin call "secret change agents." Rather than assault your company's cultural issues head-on, bring your secret agents in from the cold. Celebrate them. Promote them. Use them to show other people that the new ways can work. The power of these secret change agents-"pride builders," my colleague Jon Katzenbach calls them-is immense.
Pascale and Sternin have documented how seemingly intractable social issues-even entrenched cultural norms like female genital mutilation-have yielded to the positive contagion that can begin by celebrating and sharing the behaviour of exemplars. As Katzenbach says, successful revolution requires that you stop blaming your culture and start using it: "Working in a culture that is under attack reduces employees' energy and de-motivates them," he writes.
That seems obvious, and it makes you wonder why so many leaders nevertheless rail against their freaking, gosh-darn culture. When I wrote about how important it is for business revolutionaries to emulate their political cousins by seizing control of the media, the schools, and the police, that was the first part of the story. The big question is how to use these assets once you command them. What will you laud (and condemn), teach (and unteach), and permit (and forbid)? By accentuating the positive, you can unlock revolutionary energy and get it working for you.