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Blueprint Action #2: Figure Out What to Keep During a Culture Change

When organizations decide to embark on a culture renovation, the focus is—understandably—on what needs to change. Whether it’s recent poor business performance, a new CEO, an internal scandal, or an acquisition, culture change is usually instigated by an event that signals it is time for something different. Rarely do companies initiate culture change when everything is going well, even though that is probably the best time to consider it. Some of the largest failures in corporate history were by companies that were lulled into complacency by their previous success.

It’s natural to put a great deal of initial energy into the unhealthy cultural traits that need to disappear, be reversed, or remade. If you are considering a culture renovation, one of the first steps is to resist that urge and, instead, focus on what you want to keep.

When considering this, it’s important to not let sentiment get in the way of progress—a common misstep particularly with corporate founders and senior leaders. Instead, focus on what is foundational and will serve the organization well in the future. Last month we discussed the importance of deep listening of the workforce to truly understand the culture; listening not only illuminates what the culture is today, but also helps determine the most positive and valued aspects of the company’s historical culture to carry forward. 57% of organizations that were highly successful in renovating their cultures were very intentional in ensuring that the best of the company’s existing norms was preserved and fundamental values and history were woven into the new culture.

This practice is especially important for an organization that has a long and storied history. One such company is 3M, and their CHRO, Kristen Ludgate, details how the company views this in terms of their ongoing culture renovation efforts.

“For 3M, whenever we needed to recharge the business, we’ve looked at culture as a tool that goes back decades and decades. So, we’re all very excited that other companies now think culture is the thing to do. But that’s something that we would naturally turn to as an organization. We were in a position of strength, but we also knew we could not sit still. You don’t want to wait until you see signs of weakness in your culture to try and change or improve it, especially given the speed of business and how central culture has always been to 3M’s success.”

“We asked ourselves, how do you intentionally renovate your culture?” continued Ludgate. “We knew we had to have a plan to articulate what our aspirational culture is, and then do the hard work of rewiring.”

“As we start to define aspirationally—when we’re at our best and in light of what we want to accomplish—what is core to 3M’s success,” describes Ludgate. “We know it is innovation, but what is unique to 3M and how do we continue advancing 3M’s innovation model? We know everyone has to be agile and our history is one of strong collaboration; how does this strength evolve, what does agility mean at 3M today? You don’t start with a clean sheet of paper. You have a fantastic company that’s been around and achieved great things. So, you start with your strengths and where they line up with your strategies and you want to leverage those. And then we ask: where do you need to stretch? And that’s how we’ve thought about it—strengths and stretches.”

Strengths and stretches. As you contemplate renovating your culture, don’t ignore the strengths…they will typically form the foundation which will allow you to stretch further than most imagined.

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Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.