Single Culture or Multiple Cultures?

Nearly every organization we work with confronts an important question at some point in their culture journey: Should they strive for one, uniform culture? Or should they let multiple cultures develop inside the organization?

The answer (as frustrating as this can be) is “both.”

In our work, we help organizations create a set of clear Culture Priorities. These are not “core values,” but they are time-specific priorities that identify parts of the culture that need to be shifted in some way, in order to be more aligned with what makes the organization successful. These priorities are singular, in that they are meant for the whole organization. If one of your Culture Priorities, for example, is to improve vertical communication inside the organization, then you would think that applies to everyone, in every department (i.e., a singular culture).

And that’s true. It does apply to everyone, otherwise you couldn’t call it a Priority. But the other piece of the truth is, the way that priority plays out is going to vary for different groups inside the organization, simply because what drives success for each group will vary. This point about driving success is absolutely critical:

The whole reason you have a culture is to drive your success. You don’t choose a culture because it’s cool, or because it looks like Zappos, or because it gives you warm and fuzzies. You choose and shape and change your culture in order to help your organization—and every employee within it—to be successful.

The success of some of your departments might not require as much vertical communication as others. That doesn’t let them off the hook on the priority—they still need to take a hard look at their communication and make sure the state of that vertical flow is not getting in the way of success—but they may not have to employ the same processes as other departments as they honor that priority.

Subcultures are a natural part of culture. To deny that will only cause you problems later. But remember you can’t just accept a claim of “well we’re different here so we don’t have to do that” on face value. Your yardstick needs to be success. If they can claim being different still drives success, then accept the subculture. If they can’t make that claim, then you might need to help them change to get in line with the Culture Priority.

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