There’s an adage in Sun Tzu’s Art of War that applies to leading
organizations through change: control of a large force is the same
principle as the control of a few. It is merely a question of dividing
up their numbers.
Despite this wisdom, many companies fall into the trap of thinking that
company culture is uniform, fixed and needs protecting from on-high. Taking this view, the question ‘how to change your organizational culture?’ becomes quite daunting.
culture is co-created by all the people in a business. Just as
products and business models evolve, so do cultures. Maintaining a
healthy culture necessitates moving with the times and being able to
adapt to new challenges. Top-down edicts rarely help, which is why we
advocate a team-based approach, a process that is fluid, responsive and
Company micro-cultures are a strength
From our research, we know that companies have a vast array of
microcultures. No two
teams are the same because of how individuals and teams associate and
work with each other. Top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches will be
hit-and-miss, and at worse, annoy everyone.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for senior management to influence
culture. They are there to set basic cultural norms and expectation, and
the hiring process is a crucial way to ensure new people are a good
fit (though this comes with the caveat — as the late Tony Hsieh once
said, “If you hire for culture, you must fire for culture too.”)
Undeniably top-down approaches are good at defining strategy and
outlining major initiatives; however, execution of strategy is always
done at the team level. The daily activities of the business happen on a
team level, at a real-time pace.
Senior leaders need to think of themselves as catalysts – bringing the
right process, people, meeting rituals and goals together for success.
Having a myriad of micro-cultures allows for adaptation as well as
ensuring a more human experience, especially as organizations seek to
scale. In that sense, company leaders should seek to inspire and empower
their people to make changes, not compel them.
How companies scale with their culture intact
Teams are the engines of change in a company. It’s where the real heavy lifting gets done and
where employee experience really happens. People’s experience of work is
very proximal — they are influenced much more by the people they work
with (including a line manager) than they are by the whole organization
and culture. And as the saying goes, people join companies but leave
That means that it’s incredibly important to get the team level
One of the best examples of a business that has successfully and rapidly
scaled using teams as the foundation is the Dutch community healthcare
Founded in 2007 by Jos de Blok, a disenchanted
nurse who felt the industry had become like a manufacturing assembly
line, with nurses assigned specific jobs and given strict quotas of how
many minutes they could spend with each patient. Instead of a top-down
approach, he championed small teams of self-organising nurses – with a
strict rule that as a team grew to 10+ people, it had to split into
The result? Buurtzorg grew from zero to a turnover of $275million in
eight years. It now has over 9,000 employees and is the largest
healthcare provider in the Netherlands, 3x the size of its nearest
competitor. Buurtzorg’s approach ensures that positivity and success
are contagious — they were voted best employer across four consecutive
years in the Netherlands.
The UK High Street shoe repair chain, Timpsons, is another example of
success in this
approach. Using an ‘upside down’ management policy, frontline workers
were encouraged to take initiative at a store level. They are given the
empowering instruction, “If something works, tell me; if it doesn’t,
This gives employees the freedom to do what they feel is right.
With this approach, Timpsons grew from 300 branches and £40m in sales in
1998 to 2,120 branches and over £330m in sales by 2018.
When one team does well, it has an influence on the other teams around
them. Creativity spreads and invites more innovation, quickly becoming a
virtuous cycle. Top-down directives seldom achieve this.
Timpsons show that the team is the building block of any organization,
establishing cultural norms that lead to healthy growth.
organization looking to scale and keep its culture intact would be wise
to focus on the team level and establish company-wide rituals and simple
rules. Ideally, these would stimulate conversations and generate
actionable insights on the team level.
5 ways to scale a company while maintaining the culture
- Be fair
Our Five Ways to
Happiness at Work framework gives us insights on how a company can scale with its culture intact:
If the team is the foundation of a company, then the relationship
between team members is the building block of the team. Take time to get
to know new people and welcome them into your ‘family.’ Without this
extra touch, scaling efforts can fall apart very quickly as new people
become isolated and left out.
2. Be Fair
There’s nothing that can cripple scaling efforts more than the feeling
that things are not fair. Whether integrating new recruits or welcoming
back old colleagues from extended furlough, the risk of perceived
unfairness is high at the moment. To combat this, ensure everyone has a
voice and encourage them to speak freely in their teams.
Scaling is a period of growth and trying new things. Don’t be afraid to
give your teams the freedom to experiment — and especially don’t punish
them for it. There are beautiful ideas out there. It’s as important to
celebrate the learnings from mistakes as it is the wins.
Scaling needs feedback to guide the growth. As everyone is learning
quickly and things are in flux, it’s important to set up cultural
boundaries and give guidance on processes and whether things are going
right. Remember, one of the best things you can do in a company is to
build a positive feedback loop.
New faces and new places can be a bewildering part of scaling for
employees. It’s important that you lift the vision of everyone involved
so they know what they are building. They shouldn’t just see the bricks,
but the cathedral as well.
Communicate the social purpose of your
company. What problems are you trying to solve? Where are you trying to
go? People get more excited about their roles when they know the vision
and that they’re not just a cog in a machine to make investors rich.
Preserving culture with Friday Pulse
Regardless of the industry or size of company, every business must learn
how to help its people work together at the team level. And when they
learn how to do this well, the lessons will bubble up through the
organization and bring success, productivity and happiness for all.
Friday Pulse is designed for senior leaders to track the wellbeing of
all their teams as a company scales and provide real-time, actionable
insights on the teams that are struggling. With our Culture Profiles,
you’ll be able to see how well new people are integrating into your
Learn how Friday Pulse can help your business grow. For more information
on how we can help, please reach out to us.