Culture Evolves as a Company Grows

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Updated March 23, 2023

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At its core, organizational culture shapes how an organization learns and solves problems. In the early stages of a company, culture may be shifting rapidly, but also be very coherent, meaning there is a clear connection between the day-to-day assumptions employees are making, and the espoused values and artifacts. Early employees understand the “why” behind most decisions as a result of the company being smaller and typically having direct access to influential decision makers.

As the company scales, subcultures may emerge, typically across specific teams, functions, or business units. Schein specifies that culture may emerge at the group level, among “a definable set of people with a shared history,” when they have:

  1. Been together long enough to have shared significant problems;

  2. had opportunities to solve those problems and to observe the effects of their solutions;

  3. taken in new members.

Automattic, which has almost 1K employees, used cluster analysis to understand the communication dynamics of the company. They found that they have seven larger “cliques” in their company, largely focusing on project-related discussions. By looking at who is connected to whom, they’ve concluded that they have more of a project-based culture than a team-based one.

importantCulture is built on a company having a set of internal artifacts, values, and assumptions that helps the company and its teams solve problems. The people at your company and the nature and scale of those problems will change over time; so will your culture. For some companies, this change may be more rapid and tumultuous, which requires an even greater focus on understanding your culture while documenting and supporting how it is changing as a result. Schein notes that this is an ongoing process to “uncover the unconscious assumptions that are hypothesized to be the essence of the culture.”

This is not an easy task for any organization. For remote companies, it may be even more challenging, as many of the behaviors and norms that could be observed in an office are instead happening virtually and asynchronously between distributed teams, potentially throughout the world. This challenge is reflected by a recent growth in culture and remote-specific roles at companies, such as Chief Culture Officer, Head of People, or Head of Remote.***

Culture, just like the remote tools and processes you intentionally put into place to support focused, asynchronous work, is not a set-it-and-forget-it phenomenon. Companies, from leadership down through managers and individual employees, will need to continually take stock of their values, if and how they are being upheld, and what factors may be forcing the organization to adapt and change.

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