It has been said that the No. 1 job of a CEO (and the entire C-Suite, really) is to cultivate culture. The notion being that if a strong culture exists, everything else—employee morale, customer satisfaction, and more—will fall into place. But what happens when you bring together two vastly different cultures in a merger? In real life, they say opposites attract, but does that apply to business?
That was the issue we faced in 2013 when Accenture Interactive—the digital agency of the global professional services company Accenture—acquired Fjord, a design and innovation consultancy. Infusing design into business was obvious to us, but we now had the daunting task of integrating a design boutique—filled with free-spirited creatives, open studios, collaborative workspaces, and the like—into a then 261,000-person firm best known for large-scale technology and business consulting. We told our people it wouldn’t be smooth. For our clients, we had to merge design sensibilities (think designer optimism vs. consultant pragmatism) and different disciplines (technology, business strategy, design) into a cohesive team. Studies show that 50% to 80% of mergers fail, and culture integration is often to blame. We knew the risk of messing this up was real. And we didn’t have experience with something on this scale. So how did we marry cultures? The short answer: We didn't.
Instead, we worked to foster a culturally diverse environment in the hopes that it would draw out the best parts of our newly merged workforce. Here's how we did it.
We knew we had a variety of skills (and cultures) at play. So our strategy was to create a shared belief system. Our vision? That we would best serve our clients if we took a human-centered approach to all our work. Once everyone adopted that end goal, we believed we would be able to pool together our disparate skills.
Initially, there was discomfort. For instance, consultants prefer recommendations that are information-rich and based on analysis, data, and best practices; designers focus on narrative and make recommendations based on insights and intuition. But this tension was flipped into a positive as teams realized that different problem-solving approaches could be a strength. United under a single vision, we were able to address big challenges, such as removing the anxiety from buying a home and managing diseases such as ALS and diabetes.
No matter their size, background, or culture, all companies enter a merger armed with their own strengths. The key is to recognize what to combine and what to keep distinct. This can be especially tricky in a merger between a large company, like Accenture, and a smaller firm, like Fjord. But what happens when the larger corporation, instead of robbing the smaller brand of its identity, chooses to foster it? In our case, Fjord’s open-space studios and design methodologies were two areas to protect. They inspire creativity and bring clients into the design process.
At first, the marriage of Fjord and Accenture was like two people speaking different languages. But through strategic initiatives, the language barrier started to break down. (It helped that Fjord joined Accenture Interactive, which is culturally most similar to Fjord and provided a bridge to the rest of Accenture.) Now, Accenture is reimagining its entire employee experience, including enterprise systems and internal processes. For instance, we used Fjord's design thinking methodologies to overhaul HR's dreaded annual performance review. And inside Fjord, we created a dedicated business unit called Fjord Evolution that teaches companies how to elevate the importance of design in their organizations. These initiatives helped familiarize the two sides of the organization with each other's processes and goals.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing, and aligning two completely different working styles can prove tricky. But instead of entering into a battle of "who does what right," we have tried to embrace different perspectives.
Culture is dynamic, living, and breathing—not something that’s static and belongs in a jar in a museum. We’re a work in progress, and we’re just getting started. With every new project and through every new employee, our culture evolves.
We proffer that companies shouldn’t get too hung up on culture unification. Business strategists can still show up in business attire, technologists can show up in khakis, and designers can arrive in jeans, if that is what keeps them authentic and comfortable. A lot of pressure is taken off when you accept that a large company is a culture of cultures and recognize that you don’t have to force a round peg into a square hole. After all, getting culture right is not just a key point of differentiation for a company; it’s the enduring point of differentiation.