Values are like muscles.
My kids are part of a generation of fitness fanatics: they spend hours daily in the gym. At first, I didn’t get it. When I was a kid, I “lifted” because my coaches told me I had to. I was in the gym during the season. There were distinct “off-seasons,” which I used to downgrade my condition, not maintain it. Maybe that’s why I ended up playing club sports in college.
My kids’ third place is the gym, daily.
Some of this consistent daily ritual is social. My kids see friends there, they laugh, joke and share life. All the time, lifting weights.
All the time: strengthening their bodies.
Active or Passive?
I work almost exclusively with organizations attempting some form of cultural transformation. I see a common error made by leaders: they think that transformation is a passive thing. It can be over great lengths of time. Think of the Easter egg that you are dying. You keep yours in the dye for 20 minutes, and it comes out brilliantly colored. The three-year-old with you dips ten eggs in the same dye in the same period and her’s are a dull, pastel, less brilliant version of yours. (Don’t fret: I told her that they were amazing and beautiful!)
The transformation model that I subscribe to is much more active. We work with leaders to create what Edgar Schein, the granddaddy of Organizational Culture, calls the “daily experience.” If we behave right, daily, the culture changes. But how? It helps if you know how.
Transformed culture is a rearranging of the parts into their optimal whole. Organizational culture consists of actions and behaviors, mindsets and attitudes, and values. Organizational value systems are not independent. They are interdependent. They represent the overlap of the organization’s individual values. And, they are both virtuous and not.
Strategic transformation aims at strengthing the virtuous values, the ones that advance the strategy. For example, one of our operational excellence system “threads” is continuous improvement. Each thread has associated good values. The continuous improvement thread values are “focus on the customer” and “solving problems.” We place high importance on these things. The strategic intent – continuous improvement – advances as we strengthen those values.
So, for me, the key to transforming a culture is to exercise the values. Schein’s insight – the daily experience – helps us to operationalize the idea. Why? Because the daily experience is what exercises the values.
Every day in your organization, daily routines exercises values: virtuous ones and the ones that aren’t. The values you hope for and the values you despise.
What’s a leader to do? Don’t dip your eggs and wait! Design your daily experience to exercise the right values.
I’ve watched my kids over the years. They’ve gotten strong and fit.
If we exercise values, just like muscles, they get stronger and more defined, easier to see and more efficient.
Three Things to Add Definition and Strength, Today
Here are three things you can do today to exercise your virtuous values:
1. Add a predetermined sequence your operational discussions. An excellent example of this is when high-reliability organizations apply “safety first” as a value. They start each discussion with a safety observation. When this starts to hit habit stage, the change is remarkable. If you want a problem-solving culture, initiate the day with asking about problems. End the day with the same questions.
2. Find the pervasive negative values and starve them. Well-fed and exercised values are hard to defeat. Find what is feeding and exercising the negative values and cut those behaviors out right away. You’ll be tempted to cut out the people giving the negative vibe. Resist the temptation. Cut out the parts of the daily experience that feed and exercise the negative. For example, we often encounter middle managers who are able firefighters. They work around problems and keep things moving. That daily experience of workarounds feeds values that go against actually solving problems. Stop promoting firefighters. Recruit, promote and retain team problem solvers.
3. Use your positive values as navigational aids. Your team gets lost every day at some point. A fog settles in, and they lose track of the ever-important “why.” Your responsibility to your team is to keep them moving in the right direction. Values help us take our bearings so we know where we are and where we should be heading. When you encounter that middle manager who is trying to work around the problem, navigate to the value. Help him answer his personal “why.” Why are you working around the problem instead of finding its root cause? Is this the right thing for us to do for our customer or the expedient thing?
Awhile ago, I suggested to one of my kids that he could take a day off from the gym based on his busy schedule for the day. He agreed. Later that day, he rearranged his schedule to get to the gym. Exercising is his daily experience. He wasn’t just exercising his muscles; he was exercising his values. In the end, they both get stronger.1