6.08.2013

Dealing with Micro-cultures: Striking the Culture Balance, Not so Easy

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When you’re a startup, culture tends to be the least hard thing. It’s apparent in everything you do and because you only have 10, or 15 or maybe 30 people in the company, it’s not too hard to maintain. Ultimately, at that stage, you have much bigger challenges to overcome, and if you’re lucky, culture while not something you have to consciously think about everyday, is something that’s important, so you’ve hired people that enhance and fuel that culture you want with little effort. Just doing what they do makes the culture what it is, and that’s what you want.

In fact, I think that’s what most companies want - to hire people that value what the company values, that by default share the same vision or at least a dimension of the vision that will help move the company first from point A to point B, but then to C, D, and E. What that looks like changes over time, and as you grow pockets of different types of cultures start to emerge. This can be beneficial, if you’re aware, and if you’ve got plan to harness them, but it can also be detrimental to success.

If micro-cultures start to crop up, and you’re unaware they exist, that can be an issue, and it can snowball fast. For companies that are growing rapidly, this can become a serious issue fast because you are growing so rapidly, you might be more focused on how are you going to support customer demand versus how individuals are fairing or how the organization as a whole is dealing with the rapid changes.

It’s obvious that different groups within the company are made of of different kinds of people–Sales for example tends to look quite different from Engineering, and Engineering looks pretty different from HR or People Operations. So how do you maintain their differences but still make all the groups work towards the same goals? How do you let these micro-cultures exist yet still maintain a shared view of Culture?

I think of it like the Avengers, it's a matter of understanding what these micro-cultures (or individual strengths) look like, and harnessing the differences between these groups to make the whole even better. Every person within your company is equally important and brings a unique benefit and value to the whole. Sometimes, organizations value groups like Sales over Customer Success or Engineering over Marketing, and this is evident in their culture and it’s evident in their employee engagement scores. The challenge, like having kids I guess, is treating them differently but, loving them the same.

You can make observations about how different groups within the organization experience your culture, but the easiest way to know for sure would be to collect data. Surveying your entire staff regularly is the best way to keep your finger on the pulse of your company culture, to know for sure how different groups are dealing with growth, changes, or just the day to day.

Heat mapping, is a great way to translate those results to visually pick out areas that are either higher or lower on average, and dig deeper into those micro-environments to understand what’s different there, and how you can make changes to bring everyone up to the highest levels, while letting them maintain what makes them unique and successful.

Like most individual employees, I think groups want to have the freedom to be different (not make everyone fit into a certain mold) but, they also want to feel like they are a part of a whole and that their uniqueness is what’s making the whole better on a daily basis.

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