I used to live in a small village in England where we just had one, also small, very popular bakery. In that little place there was good quality, good service and good queues of people buying. As a croissant addict, I used to go on Saturday mornings as early as I could because they always run out of those croissants very quickly. That happened every week, so I had some friendly fights with the baker and owner about why could he not just increase his production a bit. I never won that one.
Interested in croissants, I tended to ignore the rest of the stock. One day, I started to buy bread, then cakes, then Danish pastries etc. Suddenly I realised that I had a problem: everything tasted like croissants. The croissants were good, but I did not expect the bread to taste similar to them, or those cakes. That feeling on ‘homogeneity’ put me off. Was there something contaminating in the atmosphere? Surely it was the ingredients, or the sourcing of them, or the way things were baked. I did not know. I am very good at eating, but baking is not my forte.
I have come back to the bakery analogy many times in my consulting life. In many companies, sometimes functions or groups or working units feel as if all are coming from the same oven. There is a taste-less flavour of uniformity that makes you feel as if creativity and innovation are not in the DNA. They all feel the same, taste the same, smell the same. In the other extreme of companies, you have of course the variety: croissants that taste like croissants and bread the tastes like bread. Translation: marketing that feels like marketing, sales, R&D, finance and so on, feeling all as different from each other as they can be. Clear sub-cultures, good thing or bad thing.
I still have executives complaining to me that ‘Those sales guys don’t think like us’ (marketing for example). So they shouldn’t, I say. “Those R&D don’t think commercial’. Maybe they should think R&D, I say. ‘These marketing people don’t think science and technology’. Maybe they should think marketing, I propose.
At a next level of discussion, the language of ‘alignment’ kicks in: ‘These, or those, are not aligned with us’. Most of the time, it means they don’t sing the same song. But, do you want everybody to sing the same song? Do you want croissants and cakes and pastries to taste the same?
Multi functional companies perform best when there is a healthy tension between the functions, not when everybody thinks the same. When R&D people stretch their language to sound commercial, or sales people agree completely with the marketing positioning, or manufacturing does not question the requested 20 different product forms, chances are they are not doing their jobs. No tension, cosy environment, everybody very, very aligned, this is a recipe for trouble.
My local bakery inspired me to expect variety, diversity, uniqueness. This is a problem today in many organizations, where a well-intentioned push to ‘one culture’ dilutes some diversity and differentiation of groups and subgroups. “One culture’ can still be achieved by a variety of co-existing sub-cultures. If the ‘one culture’ aim leads to complete uniformity, the price to pay for the weak innovation and creative may be too high. The trick, the skill, the value of the consulting support, is about aligning and creating ‘The One’ whilst maintaining diversity and tension.
Healthy tension is a precious engine of culture shaping. Don let marketing people do a R&D job, or vice versa. Expect tension. Expect the croissants to be perfectly warm and crunchy, but expect to bread to taste like bread, and cakes, none of the above.