MA-COM – Revising a Change Agenda as a Result of Cultural Insight

Culture assessment done for one purpose can reveal cultural elements that were not anticipated yet explain much of the observed behavior of the orga­nization and its leaders. In this case, once the deeper and unanticipated elements of the culture were identified, the change agenda was revised toward a better solution.

A newly appointed CEO of MA-COM, a high-tech company that con­sisted of ten or more divisions, asked me to help him figure out how the organization could develop a “common culture.” He felt that its history of decentralized autonomous divisions was now dysfunctional and that the company should work toward a common set of values and assumptions. The CEO, the director of human resources, and I were the planning group to decide how to approach the problem. We reached the conclusion that all of the division directors, all of the heads of corporate staff units, and various other individuals who were considered to be relevant to the discus­sion would be invited to an all-day meeting whose purpose was to identify the elements of a common culture for the future. Thirty people attended the meeting.

We began with the CEO stating his goals and why he had asked the group to come together. He introduced me as the person who would stage-manage the day, but made it clear that we were working on his agenda. I then gave a thirty-minute lecture on how to think about culture and launched into the assessment process described in the previous chapter by asking some of the less- senior people in the group to share what it was like to enter this company. As people brought out various artifacts and norms, I wrote them down on flip charts and hung up the filled pages around the room. It appeared clear that there were powerful divisional subcultures, but it was also clear that there were many common artifacts across the group. My role, in addition to writing things down, was to ask for clarification or elaboration as seemed appropriate to me.

As we worked into our second and third hours, some central value con­flicts began to emerge. The various divisional units really favored the tra­ditional assumption that high degrees of decentralization and divisional autonomy were the right way to run the overall business, but at the same time, they longed for strong centralized leadership and a set of core values that they could rally around as a total company. My role at this point was to help the group confront this conflict and to try to understand both its roots and its consequences. We broke at lunchtime and instructed randomly selected subgroups of seven to eight members to continue the analysis of values and assumptions for a couple of hours after lunch, and then met at around three o’clock for a final two-hour analysis and wrap-up session.

To start off the final session, each group gave a brief report of the assumptions that it felt aided and those it felt hindered achievement of a common corporate culture. In these presentations, the same divisional- versus-corporate conflict kept emerging, so when the reports were done, I encouraged the group to dig into this a little more. Because some mention had been made of strong founders, I asked the group to talk further about how the divisions had been acquired. This discussion led to a major insight. It turned out that almost every division had been acquired with its founder still in place; the corporate headquarters policy of granting autonomy to divisions had encouraged those founders to stay on as CEOs even though they had given up ownership.

Most of the managers in the room had grown up under those strong leaders and had enjoyed that period of their history very much. Now, how­ever, all the founders had retired, left, or died, and the divisions were led by general managers who did not have the same charisma the founders had. What the group longed for was the sense of unity and security they each

had had in their respective divisions under their founders. They did not, in fact, want a strong corporate culture and leadership because the businesses of the divisions were really quite different. What they wanted was stronger leadership at the divisional level but the same degree of divisional autonomy that they had always had. They realized that their desire for a stronger cor­porate culture was misplaced.

These insights, based on historical reconstruction, led to a very differ­ent set of proposals for the future. The group, with the blessing of corporate leadership, agreed that they only needed a few common corporate policies in areas such as public relations, human resources, and research and develop­ment. They did not need common values or assumptions, though if such developed naturally over time that would be fine. On the other hand, they wanted stronger leadership at the divisional level and a development pro­gram that would maximize their chances to obtain such leadership. Finally, they wanted to strongly reaffirm the value of divisional autonomy to enable them to do the best possible job in each of their various businesses.

Lessons Learned

This case illustrates the following important points about deciphering cul­ture and managing cultural assumptions:

  • A senior management group with the help of an outside facilitator is able to decipher key assumptions that pertain to a particular business problem—in this case, whether or not to push for a more centralized common set of values and assumptions.
  • The cultural analysis can reveal several assumptions that were cen­trally related to the business problem, as judged by the participants. However, other elements of the culture that were clearly revealed in the artifacts were judged to be not relevant. Inasmuch as every culture includes assumptions about virtually everything, it is important to have an assessment technique that permits individuals to set priorities and to discover what aspects of a culture are relevant.
  • The resolution of the business problem did not require any culture change. In fact, the group reaffirmed one of its most central cultural assump­tions. In this context, the group did, however, define some new priorities for future action—to develop common policies and practices in certain business areas and to develop stronger divisional leaders. Often what is needed is a change in business practices within the context of the given culture, not necessarily a change in culture.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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