U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Reassessing Mission

This case example illustrates the culture-deciphering process in a differ­ent type of organization. As part of a long-range strategy-planning process, I was asked in 1986 to conduct an analysis of the culture of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because of concerns that their mission was chang­ing, and they were uncertain what future sources of funding would be. In attendance were the twenty-five or so senior managers, both military and civilian, with the specific purpose of analyzing their culture to (1) remain adaptive in a rapidly changing environment, (2) conserve those elements of the culture that are a source of strength and pride, and (3) manage the evolution of the organization realistically. The managers knew that the Corps ’s fundamental mission had changed over the past several decades and that the survival of the organization hinged on getting an accurate self­assessment of its strengths and weaknesses.

We followed the ten- step assessment procedure, and the discussion developed the following themes, stated as either key values or assumptions, depending on how the group itself experienced that element:

  • Our mission is to solve problems of river control, dams, bridges, and so forth pragmatically, not aesthetically, but our responsiveness to our environment leads to aesthetic concerns within the context of any given project.
  • We always respond to crisis and are organized to do so.
  • We are conservative and protect our turf but value some adventurism.
  • We are decentralized and expect decisions to be made in the field but control the field tightly through the role of the district engineer.
  • We are numbers driven and always operate in terms of cost/benefit analyses, partly because quality is hard to measure.
  • We minimize risk because we must not fail; hence things are over’ designed, and we use only safe, well-established technologies.
  • We exercise professional integrity and say no when we should.
  • We try to minimize public criticism.
  • We are responsive to externalities but attempt to maintain our inde­pendence and professional integrity.
  • We are often an instrument of foreign policy through our non-U.S. projects.

The group identified as its major problem that the traditional mission of flood control was largely accomplished, and, with changing patterns in Congress, it was not easy to tell what kinds of projects would continue to justify the budget. Financial pressures were seen to cause more projects to be cost – shared with local authorities, requiring degrees of collaboration that the Corps was not sure it could handle. The culture discussion pro­vided useful perspectives on what was ahead but did not provide clues as to the specific strategy to pursue in the future.

Lessons Learned

This case, like the others, illustrates that we can get a group to decipher major elements of its culture and that this can be a useful exercise in clari­fying what is strategically possible. It is also evident once again that a cul­ture assessment need not lead to culture change even though that might have been an initial goal.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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