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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Culture Shock works both ways

Whether you're looking at a society, a community or a company, culture-shock is a two-way thing. People don't much care for cultures that are incompatible with their own, and – frankly – they're rarely at their best when confronted with confusion or doubt.

Of course there are many compatible cultures, and compromises and cooperation are the social lubricant that forms functioning communities – either in purely social contexts, or in business structures.

Businesses with strong products, good profits, and excellent business models often go under for issues more than the immediately obvious. Citing cash flow as the cause is like giving the cause of death as her heart stopped. Well, of course that was when things crossed the line. How did it go wrong? Some of these businesses succumb to unmanaged growth. Victims of their own success.

A dozen people may be able to turn over just so much work and business. Business is good, and either profits are too, or you get an injection of venture capital into the works, to take you through from one stable business plateau to the next. There are a number of things that can make the growth curve between these two plateaus unstable, and one of the most underappreciated items is culture clash.

Consider, Alice, Bob and Carl have been through the company trials at the startup level. They've settled down into a routine that appears to maximise efficiency in Product Development. The expanding company, flushed with the fresh blood of venture capital moves along the new business plan towards a new operational plateau, and hires Diana and Ed to join the Product Development team.

Our first problem is that Diana and Ed don't know how things are done. That takes some time away from the performance of Alice, Bob and Carl right there. Training must be done, and supported.

Our second problem is that Diana and Ed don't know why things are done. How many times have you looked at a situation and said “Oh, that's just stupid!” only to find out after hours or days of querying that due to various circumstances and conditions, there doesn't actually seem to be any better or more efficient way to go about it? If nothing else, unnecessary friction occurs while questions are asked, and Alice, Bob and Carl hear exactly the same 'new' ideas that they themselves thought of and tried out in times past. But Diana and Ed don't know that – and based on incomplete information, they see better ways – that aren't.

Our third problem is that the new Business Plan, and the introduction of Diana and Ed (and also Fran and Ginny, in Support) change the circumstances and conditions under which Product Development operates, making things possible that weren't before, or making things that were bad ideas into better ones (or causing a tried and true method to become counter productive).

How many times have you looked at a situation and said “Oh, that's just stupid!” only to find out after hours or days of querying that due to various circumstances and conditions, there doesn't actually seem to be any barrier, and that the new ideas are better? Honestly, that doesn't make Alice, Bob or Carl feel great. They've hung on to procedures because until Diana, Ed, Fran and Ginny showed up, they didn't have time to review. And perhaps one of the reasons they still don't have time is that they're still bringing the new people up to speed.

Everyone's also developed ways of communicating, socialising and interacting. The whole office is a web of interactions that form what we call the Company Culture. Alice is easy to deal with as long as you don't mention politics. Bob doesn't like extraneous chatter, and is happiest with the fewest words – but he makes an exception for Carl who feels undervalued of you don't pause for a moment to at least talk about the weather. Diana and Ed don't know the social circumstances yet. Diana mentions stops and tries to talk politics to Alice and Bob. Ed whizzes past Carl's desk, pauses for a second to give a status report and is off without a wasted word.

Friction, friction, friction. And friction is never a one-sided affair.

We're not just talking about the way Product Development works both as a unit and within a larger context – we're talking about use of the coffee machine, timing of breaks, placement of the printers and photocopiers, configuration of the hunt-groups on the telephones, and allocation of shift work and parking spaces, and yet more.

The new folks are a must, and yet everyone is disrupted.

Existing employees who suffer too much friction will leave. Enter Harry and Ivan to replace Bob. Harry and Ivan don't have the Company Culture either. Sure, they have the mission and vision statement – and the company values are on the backs of the business cards, but they don't fit into that web yet. A web that's already starting to break down.

Older employees feel friction because of the newer ones who just don't fit in yet. Newer ones feel it because they...well, they just don't fit in yet. Given time, metastasis is achieved and the company culture settles into a new form. A new society is formed from the old one, plus the addition of the new members.

Wise companies use managed growth – almost any person can be added to a company given the time to do so. Most companies aren't wise about this and grow to their own destruction.

Now we'll talk about SL – but of course you've already drawn the necessary parallels, and you can see where I'm going already.

You can see this happening in SL now. Look at any of the communities in SL right now and see how they respond to growth. Thousands of new people every day. How fast can a community absorb one new person? How fast can it absorb a hundred? A thousand?

The absorption of new members inevitably changes the community. Growth and assimilation are how communities naturally grow (or die). Communities don't die from atrophy nearly as often as they die from growth and friction.

Well, people are confused. It's like the hall-monitors versus the skateboarding graffitists depending on how you look at it. From another aspect, what you see are two groups who (in percentage terms) aren't really all that distinguishable creating unnecessary friction from insecurity.

You could call it growing pains. And you'd be right. But I remember my own growing pains so many decades ago (I have them indelibly burned into my memory), plus any number of cultural and community growing pains since, and the naming of them doesn't make them any easier to go through. Communities and businesses also have something that bodies don't normally have. Recurring growing pains.

  • How can you manage and regulate growth within your community?
  • How can you be welcoming and inclusive, while doing your best to limit the potential damage from the very small minority who would intentionally try to cause it injury?
  • How can you help ease the friction?
  • And when the growing pains are done...what new things will we have?
  • What new communities will be we be?

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