There are some things that are generically true about culture:
1 – Culture is as individual to an organisation as personality is to a person. Every one is different.
2 – Every organisation has a culture – even if they have never considered it.
3 – Cultures can be effective and constructive as well as ineffective and destructive.
4 – Different types of business and even different parts of a business need different types of culture.
5 – Above about 30 people culture needs deliberate nurturing if it is to be as effective as possible.
6 – Leadership and example are the biggest influences on culture.
Particular types of culture are more effective for different types of business.
Hierarchical vs Autonomous
A hierarchical culture is one where authority is more based on seniority, an autonomous culture is one where authority is more distributed. Hierarchical organisations are most desirable when there is a relatively inexpert work force or in emergency situations. Hierarchy is good for control when things are not otherwise ideal. Hierarchy becomes a compromise when the situation is broadly good and the business needs to get the best out of people. Individual motivation and effectiveness are significantly enhanced with autonomy.
Hierarchy and autonomy are mutually exclusive, so as a leader you might imagine operating a slide control between hierarchy and autonomy. For maximum effectiveness you would want to keep moving the slider towards autonomy. When thing are good and people have the required skills, push towards autonomy, always being prepared to step in hierarchically when people are out of their depth due to skills or emergency. In most sectors look to increase skill and relax hierarchy over time to get the best out of people.
Caring vs Compliance
A caring culture is one where people are motivated to care about other people and the quality of output. A compliance culture is one where people are motivated to obey the rules. All organisations need a mixture of both, the question is one of calibration. The important thing about compliance is that the rules are enforced. If there are too many rules enforcement becomes expensive and counter productive. Potentially high risk sectors need to have a higher degree of compliance culture than low risk sectors. As a species we are genetically programmed to care, we find caring both motivating and rewarding. In most cases the more opportunity we have to care the more effective we are.
As a leader, again, imagine you have a slide controller. For maximum benefit you want the slider pushed as far towards “care” as you can, while balancing higher risk activities with regulation. The more you can make rule compliance an act of caring (for team members safety for example) rather than fear of consequences the more effective it will be.
Collaborative vs Competitive
A collaborative culture is one where everyone feels that they are working towards a common goal and can enroll others (customers and suppliers for example) in achieving that objective. A competitive culture is one where goals are individual, even at the expense of colleagues, customers and suppliers.
Increasingly the very individual, destructive, ego based side of competitiveness is seen as undesirable – even in competition. Sports teams, these days, appreciate their competitors excellence as helping them to improve. In other words competitiveness is good as long as it is also collaborative.
In business we need to largely move on from “destructive” competition and towards collaborative cultures. Rewards and conditions need to be structured so that sales people or business units are not competing with each other for resources or results, but are on the same side collaborating towards a shared objective. We also need to move on from competing with suppliers and customers for profit. Prioritising our own profits at the expense of our customer’s or our supplier’s is only ever effective in the short term.
Creative vs Conforming
A creative culture is one where process takes a back seat to innovation, a conforming culture is one where process is prioritized. The choice of which is very dependent on what the business or team are doing. The key is to be really clear about the objectives and to establish elements of creativity and conformity in the right places.
When I was at Razorfish, creativity was critical to everything we did – except that we also needed a common approach to delivering our creativity. We had to have a process, framework and language that everyone conformed to, so that we could deliver creativity consistently.
As a leader you need to understand and clarify for others precisely where creativity and conformity are required.
This is a very simplified glance and the nature of organisational culture. As a leader your priority is to understand and be very clear about the organisational vision and purpose and from that to identify what kind of culture is going to be the most effective at achieving them and then design the structure, rewards, processes and language that will nurture the desired culture. When an organisation has less than about 30 people, this will happen fairly naturally, as the organization grows, especially if it is not in a single location more deliberate effort will need to be used to maintain the culture.
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