A roadmap for navigating cultural polarities
The competing values framework was developed by Robert E. Quinn and John Rohrbaugh as they searched for criteria that predict if an organization performs effectively. Their empirical studies identified two dimensions that enabled them to classify various organizations’ “theory of effectiveness”. The first dimension (flexible/focused) differentiates an emphasis on flexibility, discretion, and dynamism from an emphasis on stability, order, and control. The second dimension (internal/external) differentiates an internal orientation with a focus on integration, collaboration, and unity from an external orientation with a focus on differentiation, competition, and rivalry. Together these dimensions form four quadrants, each representing a distinct set of organizational and individual factors.
Each dimension highlights two values that are opposite to one another, building on a different set of assumptions, resulting in quadrants that are also opposite to one another on the diagonal. Each of those quadrants represents a different type of organization, with a different type of culture, orientation, leader type, values drivers, and theory of effectiveness.
The Culture Contract
While many organizations subscribe implicitly to one of these archetypes, they rarely make that implicit shared agreement between teammates explicit. Which is exactly what the team at NOBL suggests we should do in:
It starts off explicitly calling out the archetype that they subscribe to (Elephant Herd/Collaborate in this case), clarifying the core values tension and the choice they’re making (using an even-over statement), explaining the “Why?” behind that choice, detailing the emblematic behaviors.
It then explores the values tension in more detail, looking at it through two different lenses, what the organization owes the individual and what the individual owes the organization, again utilizing even-over statements.
Lastly, it addresses failure modes: calling out the early warning signs that we may not be living up to the cultural contract, and a process to manage the concern that the contract might have been broken.
Taking it to the next level
The act of undertaking an organizational self-reflection exercise and making the implicit culture contract explicit is already a massive step forward in building a strong, coherent organizational culture. The next level realization is that while the four values are competing with one another, we need to integrate all four to build a truly robust, long-lasting organization. And that requires viewing the values paradox as a polarity to be managed, rather than a choice to be made. The good news is that the culture contract can still be an invaluable aid in doing so, with a couple of minor tweaks:
- Transitioning from a single reflection exercise that creates the document to a recurring reflection exercise, probably every 6–12 months in which we determine “which pole (quadrant) do we need to get closer to next?”
- Since the polarity perspective introduces the concept of going too far from one pole or too close to another, we need to add a section to the culture contract doc that highlights the early warning signs that we’ve gotten too close to that pole.