The Glue in Merging Cultures

Did you know that multiple thin strips of wood glued together are stronger and more stable than a single wood panel of the same width? For instance, gluing six 3-foot lengths of 1 x 3 lumber creates a final product less prone to cupping, twisting, and bowing than a single 18-inch wide panel of the same length. An interesting truth that has stuck in my mind for several years following a conversation with my brother-in-law, a master craftsman specializing in custom-designed, handmade furniture and cabinetry.

Over the years I’ve used the analogy during strategic planning and leadership development programs to help teams become stronger than they could be as individuals. There is an important caveat, however. Success is dependent upon the glue.

So what is the glue in merging two cultures? The first question to ask yourself, “Do the two existing cultures complement or contradict each other?” The answer to this question will significantly impact your approach to the change management process. If the cultures are in contradiction, your approach will be more consistent with an acquisition regardless of the financial or structural arrangement of the two combining organizations.

Assuming the two cultures are strong and compatible and that you desire the greatest buy-in from individuals on both sides of the merger, you’re best served to create something unique which leverages the best of both worlds. The objective in this case should be to create a new shared identity.

We’ve found that the following three elements are critical in creating the glue that will fuse the merging cultures together.

Importance of Core Values

In creating the strategy it will be important to place strong emphasis on uncovering and defining the core values held by the merged organization. What’s more, invest the time to define and clearly articulate the behaviors associated with demonstrating each of the core values. This is a step that is often missed by organizations and one that provides great clarity for the entire organization as it looks to live the cultural values.

Use of Cultural Spark Plugs

Peter Drucker is often credited with the quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We see the best results from organizations that are intentional about their culture in the strategic planning process. For starters, these organizations get input throughout their strategic planning process from what we call their “cultural spark plugs”. These are the individuals in the organization that are known for making things happen. They’re the unofficial leaders that people follow regardless of their position or title.

Engaging these “spark plugs” from each of the merging organizations will give you great insight to similarities and differences in how they view the current reality and desired future. You will also reap benefits from this group of leaders driving the strategy down into the organization demonstrating a unified commitment to the strategy. Craft the organization’s narrative and share it as a common practice with employees. Your narrative will include historical elements of the merged organizations with key milestones including challenges and victories. It will include the core purpose of the organization, learning that has taken place, strategies that have been implemented, and a vision for the future.

Culture happens. Great culture only happens with great energy and focus. Merging two cultures requires even greater effort and can result in an even greater culture. Remember to first decide if you will create a new shared identity from the merging organizations.

Second, be intentional about developing culture through your strategic planning process and anchor your culture to your core values by clearly articulating the behaviors associated with each of the values. Finally, enjoy the process of formalizing and consistently sharing the organization’s narrative. You will build something beautiful.

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