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“Why can’t we all just get along?”

This was the question asked by the incomparable Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! Nicholson’s performance is over the top, ridiculous, and absolutely brilliant, and I think the film is badly under-rated. It was considered a box office “bomb”, but has built a reasonably strong following over the years.

I won’t comment on what happens in response to the question in this particular case, but I think the question is a good one, and we should probably all be asking it.

In our professional lives, our ability to work together effectively depends on a number of factors, including the size of our team, the size of the organization, and the various cultures in which we operate. In small organizations which run well, there is often a strong team culture in which every member of the team is able to effectively interact with everyone else. This can be a very powerful advantage, but does not scale well.

Beyond a certain size, close personal relationships are not enough to hold a team together, and this is where culture becomes important.

Every team has a culture, which simply refers to the values and norms of the group. It’s important to note that humans form groups, but even more important to note that people form multiple group identities, which interact, overlap, and (often) conflict with each other.

I’ve commented on the idea that a complex system that works evolves from a simple system which works. Similarly, a large organization’s culture is the sum of the cultures of all the organizations of which it is composed.

In some organizations, growth is incremental and organic, so the culture is reasonably consistent and changes relatively slowly. This, of course, can be either good or bad, depending on the situation.

Some organizations are more complex. They might grow through acquisition, or be spread across multiple countries. They may have been subject to major market changes, or simply the technology shifts of the past 100 or so years. In any case, large organizations will often have extremely complex cultures, and may struggle to work effectively as a team.

This is, of course, the point. If an organization cannot effectively work as a team, they really cannot work effectively. But what can be done to help ensure that an organization works as a team?

There is a lot of time spent talking about building effective teams, how to work as a team, how to lead teams, and so on, but most of it boils down to a few simple (though not easy) truths.

Changing an organizational culture does not happen quickly. The larger the organization, the more inertia to overcome, and the more resistance there will be if the change is not managed carefully.

First, an organization’s leadership must be clear about defining and communicating their vision for the organization. This is essential, but not sufficient. They then need to “walk the walk”, by providing resources, being consistent, and ensuring accountability, so that people understand that leadership is serious about the changes. And finally, they need to be patient. Major changes to the culture of large organizations can take years before they become obvious, but this also means that they will be more stable and lasting.

This can be done successfully. I have been part of “organizational changes” several times over the years. In most cases, there was a lot of talk about doing things differently, but no follow-up, and things ended up more or less the way they were before.

But, “sometimes, just sometimes” (to quote “The Crow”), you can tell that this time it’s different. You realize that the nice-sounding vision you heard a year ago has been repeated several times, see resources being spent on things which actually support the vision, and see members of the “old guard” either leave the organization or change their ways. That’s when you realize that things are changing, and you need to decide what you want to do about it.

This, of course, describes planned, deliberate change. Change also happens naturally, and can build momentum, either good or bad. Either way, it’s generally driven by leadership behaviour.

What can we do from the trenches, though?

It depends. If your personal values are consistent with the new leadership vision, you can help most by being consistent with the new vision, trying to help people understand it, and by walking the walk yourself.

The biggest challenge, though, is breaking down the silos – the barriers between teams. These can include reluctance for a team to interact with others, onerous and/or inconsistent processes, team and organizational rivalries, and endless other challenges.

But these, too, can be addressed. Just follow three simple rules, and you can help to break down the silos and help build better organizations.



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