The last thing you want is a common culture

December 29, 2010

Culture is one of the most abused words on the OD lexicon and one of the most common mistakes is to assume that if an organisation has a common culture it is necessarily a good thing. Part of the problem here is that people confuse different with incompatible. The latter is obviously a bad idea as the focus will be on internal conflict rather than external achievement. The former on the other hand can provide create resilience by creating diversity. It can also reduce the alienation inherent in imposed cultural norms.

By forcing people to accept a common culture (or rather forcing them to give lip service to the explicit language of that culture) you increase the tension between the way that people naturally behave and the way they now feel they have to. That means increasing alienation and inevitably suppressed conflict and increasingly levels of conflict. Choose one culture and the consequences if you get it wrong are high, it may seem tasty at the time but long term obesity (well it was too good a cartoon not to use) is a less attractive consequence.

Far, far better is to create boundaries around compatible but different cultures. A little conflict from time to time is no great problem either, it broadens the scanning range of the group, increases sensitivity to difference which is key to competitive survival. Homogenization should never be a goal in a heterogeneous world. Variety is not just to spice of live, it is essential to life.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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