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Two tribes: what to do when team cultures combine

Bittersweet Symphony of Life

Combining teams with different cultures, inside or across organisations, creates unique opportunities – access to different resources, disruptive thinking, cognitive diversity – and challenges. How to get it right?

Let’s recap with three of the critical tasks that we need to tackle when any team forms – something we looked at in a recent blog post, in considering what areas are most important during Bruce Tuckman’s “Forming” stage of team development. In summary, these were:

  1. Awareness of, and use of, individual and team strengths

  2. Clarity of the team’s mission, purpose and story

  3. Mutual respect, trust and inclusive behaviour

For team strengths, the framework that I habitually work with is Dr Meredith Belbin’s team role theory. His research at Henley Management College in the 1980s demonstrated how diverse ways of thinking, acting and relating within teams contribute to team performance.

Mission, purpose and story are also important. Each team needs to recognise a context that is uniquely its own. This context needs to be explicit, not assumed, and it is unique to that team. These contextual elements are a foundation on which future team development is built, and progress checked.

Mutual respect is paramount and this requires the leaders to learn and become excellent at inclusive behaviour. High performing teams demonstrate what Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School calls “psychological safety.” This is a climate where everyone feels able to speak up, offer information and opinions, and not be shot down by other team members. Time after time, we find that the best teams have been ones that offer both great support and strong challenge. They are, in the words of leadership guru Steve Radcliffe, “up to something.”

When Two Tribes Go To War

These same fundamental principles apply when two diverse teams combine. Yet, often, what we find instead is a version of what my colleagues, Max Isaac and Anton McBurnie, describe as the “cowboys vs. geeks” story. In their story, two groups of engineers come together for a highly visible new product development initiative. But the teams' approaches are so different that they encounter constant disagreement, delay and frustration. They remain in two camps, neither comprehending the other. The project starts to go dangerously off track. Milestones are missed.

Yet - each of these teams has a great track record. They have experienced leaders and in combination, have all the technical skills they could wish for. Budgets are available and senior sponsorship is in place. There is a clear sense of urgency. What, you might think, could possibly go wrong?

Come Together, Right Now

I can think of many similar examples from other organisations I have worked with, where in each case the teams end up forming into silos – finance vs. IT, the Brits vs. the Italians, product group A vs. product group B and so on. What we are describing is clearly neither a capability problem nor a strategy problem. It’s a problem with how the team is working.

It turns out that there were three common elements in moving this particular common story forward. Progress happens in combining diverse teams when:

  1. The teams, or at least the leaders of the teams, come to a realisation that interaction is at the heart of their problems – and a key to their collective success

  2. Team members develop an understanding of how each individual contributes to the whole team’s performance, rather than seeing each other as members of distinct tribes or camps – similar to the step we identified for single team formation

  3. With this awareness of the resources available to the whole team, the combined team clarifies and regroups around its common purpose and mission

What insights can we draw from this story? I think it’s really very simple.

The contributions that individual team members make to cross team collaboration are more important than their stereotypes about what people in team X or team Y might be like.

And the diversity of individual contributions, when recognised and used well, consistently outweighs and outperforms the differences across teams.

It follows that, once we know the sort of people we have, regardless of where they started, them the details of how we’re actually going to work together start to fit together much more easily.

A World in Union, a New World Has Begun

We’re going to conclude by considering a third level at which either harmony or discord can occur between teams. This is when two or more organisations come together, for example through merger, acquisition or in some form of business-to-business partnership.

Many of the examples I have personally experienced also have an international dimension to them, introducing the complicating factors of country cultures and managing relationships at a distance.

Earlier this year I encountered a great example of what can happen when people from two different organisations start to work together well. In this case, an established product development team in a European pharmaceutical company was working for the first time with a recently acquired subsidiary, which involved a team of Californian technicians. A bit like the Cowboys v. Geeks story, they were on a time-critical new product development that was vital to their combined business.

The difference in this case was that they had recognised that interaction was a risk to delivery from the outset, and had been working on it from their very first meeting. When I met with them in Switzerland, they already felt like a single team that had united around a common mission.

Over the course of our time together, they increased their understanding of everyone’s individual team role strengths and contributions: identifying ways to reduce unproductive conflicts, make better-informed decisions and improve their combined performance.

They increased their understanding of themselves as a single project team and watered down their original stereotypes of “the process-driven Europeans from the pharmaceutical business” or “the pushy Californians from the tech company.”They made use of individual complementary styles to enhance the total productivity of the team, in addition to pooling their considerable technical experience.

Darkness at the Edge of Town

You might reasonably ask: isn’t that last example really just a version of cross-team working? And you would be right. In this case, the teams had come from two different organisations. But the process was very much the same. Max Isaac calls this the “one team at a time” approach.

I recently wrote about the unsettled marriage, and recent divorce, between two organisations with very distinctive – and different – outlooks and cultures: The Body Shop and its former owner l’Oréal.

There were, of course, plenty of economic and strategic factors that didn’t help the relationship. The heart of the matter, however, was that over the ten-year relationship, neither organisation really took on – or respected – the values of the other. For an organisation like The Body Shop, whose externally-facing campaigning values were core to its appeal to customers and – crucially – to employees as well, this was never going to be a winner. It got in the way of working effectively. Natura, the new Brazilian owner of The Body Shop, seems to hold more of these values in common, and this appears to be a more promising start.

You could say that l’Oréal and The Body Shop were married for ten years, but never really understood each other.

Nice Day for a White Wedding

How can you tease out the similarities and differences between organisational cultures, and identify where to start? In an organisation of thousands of people, it will take a long time to complete Belbin reports for everyone!

This is where we find a diagnostic tool like the Denison Organisational Culture Survey to be helpful. It creates a snapshot of a dozen aspects of organisational culture, benchmarked against a large database of other organisations, and identifies the areas where there’s most work to do. You can segment it at a business unit, function or country level and start to work out which teams to work with, and what needs to be focused on.

The five Core Values questions on the Denison survey, above, are instructive in considering our example of The Body Shop and l'Oréal. In fact, Karen Jones, Managing Director for UK, Eire and Nordics at Denison, describes these values as the “glue” that holds a global organisation together. What's more, she identifies “ignoring core values will get you in trouble” as the single most sensitive question on the whole survey. If the answer to this question is no, then she argues that the espoused values are unlikely to create focus, consistency and stability – which are essential for the seeds of organisational diversity to flourish.

This sort of “cultural due diligence,” undertaken before two organisations combine forces, can really help to clarify their gaps and potential synergies, before the knot is tied. We know that a poor cultural fit is a common risk factor for partnerships, mergers and acquisitions. The Denison survey provides useful data around this aspect of risk and change, which can otherwise be hard to quantify.

Our thinking about team roles, values and culture extends, of course, into the sorts of large-scale outsourced partnerships and supplier collaborations that I encounter within my work on global supply chains and procurement. We might write more about those at a future date.

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