Crossing the Culture Chasm

Onno Koelman

Co-Founder, Lead Trainer, and Coach – The People Piece

You may have heard of the “Market Chasm.” That’s the leap a company must make in order to get the majority of customers buying its products or services, not just a small group of innovators and early adopters. (Most companies that try to cross the chasm fail.)

If your organization wants to scale successfully—and remain successful for the long haul—there is an equally critical, yet often overlooked, leap it must make.

We call it the Culture Chasm.

Workers back-to-back

What is the Culture Chasm?

As humans, we rely on building relationships with the people around us. And since we spend so much time at work, the connections we develop with our team members and co-workers are essential to the health of the organization and its productivity.

But there are only so many people we can maintain a personal relationship with, and according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, we hit our max when group size reaches around 150 people. Other researchers put the number at anywhere between 100 to 200.

It’s no coincidence that organizations tend to encounter challenges when they cross into this territory. Here are some of the most common complaints we hear:

“Who are these people in X office/department/country trying to tell me what to do?”

“Why do we need to take on so many of these new rules and processes?”

“How do I manage my workload with so many new requests coming my way?”

“What can I do to hold people accountable for following through when I don’t know them and don’t have any authority over them?”

“Are we losing our soul and becoming too corporate?”

In our experience at The People Piece, the vast majority of organizations are caught off guard by the Culture Chasm. Organizations tend to invest a lot of time and money developing careful plans to support growth and scaling that involve well-thought-out business models, operations plans, and org charts, but often pay precious little attention to the human element of a changing organization.

Yet despite the very real cultural challenges of scale, there are of course successful mid-size and large companies that employ far more than 100 or 200 people. They help a new animal emerge: one that requires new ways of thinking, acting, and organizing.

So what can leaders, teams, and organizations do to cross the Culture Chasm successfully? We’ve helped mid-sized companies successfully make the leap using these 6 strategies.

1. Bring Your Values to Life

Carollo Engineers knows a thing or two about longevity. As the leading US-based civil engineering firm in the water industry, it has been in business since 1933. In order to maintain organizational health and enable the organization to grow, its new CEO launched an effort to rally its 1,000 employees around a set of guiding leadership principles. We worked with the company to articulate a core set of 4 - 5 behavioral norms that embody each principle, helping to keep these values alive and at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Now, we are working to help emerging leaders develop the skills they need to put values into action.

2. Use Purpose as Fuel

Everyone wants to know that their work makes a difference. When everybody at an organization understands why what they do matters and how it fits into the bigger picture, they stay motivated and engaged. This is especially critical as companies grow, specialization increases and individual efforts can feel like a drop in the bucket.

Slack Technologies took a simple approach to keep their programmers and engineers inspired, even when they spend their days writing obscure lines of code almost no one will ever see or even know about. At their headquarters buildings in San Francisco, flat screen monitors display a rotation of tweets from happy end users. That way, Rachel may have been working half the day to fixing a tedious bug, but she understands just how important that fix was to the company and its customers.

3. Invest in Manager Development

When your company hires more people, you’re going to need to organize into more teams. And those teams need capable, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent managers.

In 2011, The People Piece developed and launched a management development program for semiconductor manufacturer Cirrus Logic, headquartered in Austin, Texas. Since then, half the company’s managers have been through the program, which helped prepare the company for tremendous growth. Over the past 7 years, Cirrus Logic has tripled in size and established a physical presence in 18 countries on 4 continents, all while maintaining its status as a Great Place to Work, and being named by Fortune magazine as a Best Workplace in Technology in 2017.

4. Help Your Leaders Become Coaches

When leaders learn how to coach others, their people feel more supported, learn valuable skills and knowledge, and develop lasting relationships—all key to preventing culture gaps at work. Mosaic, which helps make solar panel installation more financially accessible to homeowners, has recognized the importance of coaching and empowerment as the company grows expand.

We’ve partnered with Mosaic to develop a series of trainings for front line managers and senior leaders, teaching coaching tools such as deep listening and powerful questions, all with a focus on unleashing the potential, ownership, and problem-solving abilities of the organization’s nearly 200 employees. With a genuine commitment to a culture of empowerment, it’s no wonder that Rolling Stone featured CEO Billy Parish in November 2017 as one of 25 people shaping the future of tech.

5. Empower the Grassroots

Three years ago, the new Vice President of Operations at Liberty Utilities in Northern California set an ambitious goal: transform the organization’s culture and quadruple its engagement scores. Leadership at the company understands that if their organization continues to grow and realize their dream of a clean energy future (the VP drives a Tesla), they would have to lay a groundwork of a healthy culture based on accountability, collaboration, and ownership. And that means getting every employee fully on board.

We’ve worked with the Liberty crew to help employees develop constructive ways to communicate and hold each other accountable. We also trained a team of employee leaders in strategies to promote accountability among their peers. By engaging everyone at all levels of the company, Liberty Utilities is reaching its engagement goals as it works for a greener future.

6. Stay Curious and Ask Questions

If you want to be better prepared to cross a Culture Chasm in your organization—or better yet, avoid one altogether—your people will need to commit to culture for the long term. Keeping purpose front and center—and empowering your managers, teaching coaching skills, and applying your company’s values—will take more than just an all-hands cheerleading session or a day-long off-site.

Crossing the Culture Chasm is a journey, and the most important journeys in life are supported by a genuine spirit of curiosity and discovery. We encourage you to keep asking questions:

  • What strengths can we leverage to cross the Culture Chasm?
  • How can we plan for people when we introduce new processes and procedures necessitated by a larger organizational size?
  • What will support people to navigate conflicts with others they don’t know personally, especially as complexity and demands continue to grow?
  • What will help keep people motivated, engaged, and on purpose when they may feel like their efforts now seem like a drop in the bucket?
  • How can we maintain our core values and the soul of who we are while also embracing the new ways of doing things that will enable us to scale successfully?

We hope that these strategies will help your people stay focused, inspired, and engaged as your organization scales. Get in touch with us to learn more about how our comprehensive, customized development programs can help your organization navigate cultural shifts and cross the Culture Chasm.

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About Onno Koelman

Onno has coached and trained for powerful results at all levels of organizations, from individual contributors up to the C-suite. His warm and engaging manner make the learning fun, and his diverse background in engineering and sales equips him to relate well with both technical and non-technical audiences alike. Onno is certified in the EQI2.0 emotional intelligence assessment and trained at CTI and Harvard-affiliated Minds at Work.

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