In the first installment of this article on organizational culture, we looked at the power culture, the role culture plays and how to gain influence in each. Today we move to the final two cultures of Charles Handy’s seminal model: task culture and people culture.
Task culture is job or project-oriented, and pictorially, it can be best represented as a net. Some of the strands of the net may be thicker or stronger than others. The power and influence is located at the interstices of the net – the knots. Task cultures tend to be found in organizations that our project-based or matrix structures.
Teams are often ad hoc with an emphasis on getting the job done. The organization assembles the right people at the leadership levels needed and appropriate resources for the completion of a particular project. A Task Culture’s rally cry is to "get the project moving forward." Influence tends to be utilized to improve efficiency in this regard. A task culture is team focused, where the project’s outcomes define success, power and roles. Influence is based more on expert power than on position or personal power, and influence is more widely dispersed than in other cultures. If you excel in an area needed to complete the task at hand for a given project, you gain authority in that area in the moment when it is being enacted.
Task culture depends on teamwork to produce results. Groups, project teams or task forces are formed for a specific purpose and can be re-formed, abandoned or continued. The organization can respond rapidly since each group ideally contains all the decision-making powers required. One example of a task culture is NASA, the US space agency, which in the 1960s had the specific task of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade and bringing him back safely. Individuals find that this culture offers a high degree of autonomy, judgment by results, easy working relationships within groups and mutual respect based on ability rather than on age or status.
Another example of the Task Culture is software development, where scrum boards tend to be the main means of accomplishment. Anyone on the team can claim a sub-task to be completed and begin working on it.
Task Culture generally thrives where speed is of the essence. It is also important to a task culture that the larger project can be broken down into smaller tasks so that central command-control can be minimized. The weakness of the task culture is the difficulty in managing the ebb and flow of task teams and scaling the organization to match increasing demands without become more of a command-and-control power culture.
How to Influence in a Task Culture
Gaining influence in task culture organizations can be difficult. Those who allocate projects, people and resources up-front are the largest influencers in this type of organization. These are typically senior managers who exert little day-to-day control over methods of working or procedures once the team and resources are allocated. When resources are available, this flow is easier. When resources become restricted, senior managers may begin to feel the need to control, causing team leaders to compete for resources, using political influence. In a scarce resource environment, morale can tend to decline, and, often, employees begin to reveal their own objectives. The task culture has a tendency to slide towards a role or power culture when resources are limited or when the whole organization is unsuccessful.
Middle and junior level team members often enjoy working in the task culture. They are able to exert power without a corresponding position as long as they are seen as making viable progress with the tasks to be completed. It is mostly in tune with the current trends of change and adaptation, as it discards typical status and position differentials.
Person culture is a rare culture. While many leadership books espouse its values, it is much more difficult to actually enact within an organization. This type of culture is pictured by a constellation of stars. This is because each individual in a person culture is nearly autonomous and exists in semblance or proximity to the organization rather than being a full member of it, like stars in a constellation. The constellation exists because of the stars in it, not vice versa. In a person culture, any structure that exists within the organization exists only to serve and assist the individuals within it, to further their own interests without any overriding objective.
This culture is difficult to incorporate primarily for the reason that control mechanisms and management hierarchies are only possible in these cultures except by mutual consent. Corporate objectives are impossible to achieve whenever they conflict with the personal objectives of a member. The member of this type of organization has a vast majority of the power and is able to leave at will. Seldom can the organization fire or evict the member.
Examples include consultant associations, architect firms, law firms or other type of cooperative partnerships. Freelance workers who align themselves as unofficial partners such as a web designer and a web copywriter who refer work to one another would be an example. Rarely does this culture last, as it soon becomes a task culture, a power culture or a role culture.
Influence in the person culture is based on one thin: perceived expertise. As long as the individual within the organization is the perceived expert on a given subject, he or she will be followed and allowed to lead in that specific area. In order to gain influence, you need to become an indispensable expert in a given area. The lower the amount of competing experts in the field, the more influence and power you will retain.
You will occasionally find a person culture existing within one of the other culture models. How? This person is such a specialist and expert in their field that they are invaluable to the organization and cannot be lost by the organization. If they were to leave, they could typically find a job the very next day because of their expertise, and the organization would be almost at a complete loss without them. Thus, this person often gets carte blanche on doing what they want despite organizational policies to the contrary. They can negotiate salary, time-off and other things apart from existing guidelines. A specialist expert at this level tends to not regard positional power as authoritative over him or her.