Creating a Positive Culture

I was having breakfast with a young CEO. His successful organization is characterized by many unconventional, positive practices. He told me that in recent weeks he and his people have made a new discovery. Previously they believed that their company was about the product they make. What they have now discovered is that people come to them because they want to understand and acquire their positive culture. He said this was a stunning discovery and they are trying to make sense of it.

I was fascinated. I thought of a story I heard long ago. It was about a fast food chain. One store went bankrupt several times. It was then purchased by a retired fireman. At the end of the first year the store was extraordinarily profitable. A team was sent to investigate.

The explanation turned out to be simple. The owner spent most of his time at the front door. He greeted and made jokes with everyone that came in. He had running dialogs with the repeat customers. The people kept returning. They were not there to buy the fast food. They were there because they desired something far more precious, something rare that they now were getting for free. They wanted to be part of a culture in which they were valued. Creating such a culture turned a highly disadvantaged business into a very profitable business.

Here is an interesting question. Did the fast food chain learn from success? After discovering what the retired fireman was doing, did the fast food chain invest in training a person to do the same in every store? They did not.

I have a friend who says this is logical because excellence is not scalable. The enthusiasm of the retired fireman could not be imitated and replicated by some minimum-wage employee apathetically “welcoming” people.

While I agree with the example given by my friend, I disagree with his general conclusion. I believe the chain left millions of dollars on the table because they did not know how to create positive culture. Positive culture is not created through imitation, it is created through reinvention. You find a manifestation of positive deviance. You identify the underlying principle. Then you have people reinvent the practice until it is customized to their situation and their strengths. Consider an example.

In a large retail chain there was a store manager who was a former drill sergeant. Every time a customer needed help, the employees would blow a whistle and help would come running.  It was all done in fun and the store received extraordinary scores on customer service.  Another store in the chain tried to imitate the practice. It totally failed. At that point most executives would conclude that the excellent practice was not scalable and they would drop the idea. These people did not drop the idea. Instead they encouraged other managers to identify their own strengths and then experiment with similar concepts until they had something that worked. Some experienced success. One key to creating a positive culture is first learning from success and then reinventing that success in other contexts.

Reflection

When have I seen imitation fail?

When have I reinvented a successful practice?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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