Clan Culture Beats Bureaucracy

When helping organizations amalgamate, we always look at culture. In a couple of recent initiatives involving the merger of public sector organizations, we were asked to do a cultural assessment of the “legacy” organizations. This meant conducting a series of focus groups that simply asked people:

  • What is it you most value about the current culture of your organization?
  • What would you like to change in the current culture?
  • What might an idealized culture be?

There were, predictably, lots of questions about culture, which I tried to answer in a recent blog. What we found was that the synthesis of this data with quantitative results from the on-line Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) gave a very clear and consistent message.

How does an organizational culture assessment work?

The OCAI is based on the competing values framework of Quinn and Cameron, and points to one of four distinct cultures:

  1. Adhocracy, marked by innovation and change
  2. Market, evidenced by a fierce competitive desire to dominate the market
  3. Bureaucracy, indicating a preference for structure and policy
  4. Clan, which suggests a commitment to collaboration and relationship


No one culture is right or wrong, better or worse. No culture exists in isolation of the other. The question is what blend or balance of cultures best suits our needs, our context, and, most importantly our defined purpose?

Both of our recent experiences were with organizations committed to services for children, particularly children who were highly disadvantaged. To no one’s surprise, both strongly indicated a desire to develop a stronger “clan culture.”

What does clan culture look like?

A clan culture has been described as “a family-like or tribe-like type of organizational environment that emphasizes consensus and commonality of goals and values”.

Clan cultures are the most collaborative and the least competitive of the four main corporate culture models.

Some of the key markers of a clan culture include:

  1. A friendly working environment, held together by loyalty and shared values.
  2. A high level of engagement and involvement.
  3. Caring for people and addressing the needs of clients defines success.
  4. The organization promotes teamwork, participation, and consensus.

Leaders are cheerleaders

In a clan culture, leaders are seen as facilitators, mentors and team builders who focus on developing the capacity of those around them and creating an environment that empowers others.

  • They gravitate naturally to concepts like “tight-loose-tight.”
  • They believe that their organization creates value through effective communication and developing core capacities.
  • They believe they can bring about quality through empowerment, team building, employee involvement, human resource development, and open communication.

Bureaucratic cultures just won’t do the job anymore

I believe there is a natural affinity between clan cultures and the emergent change and self-organization that characterize complex, adaptive systems.

In several different blog posts and research articles, I have made the point that for organizations to thrive, they need to free themselves from the bonds of a highly bureaucratic, command-and-control, mechanistic approach. They need to search out new ways of thinking that rely on more organic metaphors.

In order to maintain the agility and resilience required to thrive in highly volatile environments, they need to be able to create environments characterized by collaboration, communication and continuous learning.

Develop clan culture values in your organization

In our new book, Leading in Disorienting Times, Gary Nelson and I explore a variety of approaches that will support the development of a clan culture. Although we don’t specifically use that term, I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to foster the organizational values I’ve explored in this blog post. Enjoy!

Peter_bio2Peter Dickens

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry at Follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).

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