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[Drafted by David LaBar]
CAN CORPORATE AND CREATIVE COMPANIES EVER
No. And That’s OK, writes Olof Schybergson, CEO, Fjord and Baiju Shah, MD, Accenture Interactive &
Co-Lead at Fjord
It has been
said that the number one job of a CEO (and the entire C-Suite, really) is to cultivate culture. The
notion being: if a strong culture exists, everything else – employee morale, customer satisfaction and
other positive outcomes – 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?
The Reality of Now
This was the issue we faced in 2013 when Accenture Interactive—the digital agency of the global
professional services company Accenture -- acquired Fjord, a global design and innovation
consultancy. And while the business logic of infusing design into business transformation work was
obvious to us, we now faced the daunting task of integrating a global design boutique – filled with our
free-spirited creatives, open studios, collaborative workspaces, and iterative thinking and
experimentation – 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 one cohesive team. Studies show that 50-80% 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. In short, we had to bridge from strategic intent to the practical
reality of now.
Some press had already written the merger off as ill-fitted before it even happened. Three years
later, we not only successfully integrated, but Fjord has tripled the size of its team and expanded its
footprint from two to six continents. We’ve had some stumbles along the way, but the reason we
believe we have had success is because of something we learned early on, and still embrace today:
You can’t merge cultures. Culture is a living, breathing thing. It’s always changing as an organization
evolves. It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Today, embracing a culture of diversity and
differences is what makes a great organization great. Take it one step further: culture should be
approached strategically, like any core business function.
So how did we go about creating our culture of cultures?
Our North Star: A Unified Vision
When two disparate entities unite in a business merger or
acquisition, there’s often an immediate clash of cultures, an inherent
“us-versus-them” bias. But, what happens when the larger
corporation, instead of robbing the smaller brand of its identity,
chooses to foster cultural integration through a unified vision?
We knew we had a variety of skills (and cultures) at play, but
understood that there had to be a shared belief system, an end goal
that unites people, before any of these skills could be pooled
together successfully. In our case, our belief was that enduring
success for our clients will come from people-centricity, and our internal goal was ambitious: to create
the world’s leading design and innovation firm while serving as a benchmark for how you successfully
merge creative design, technology, and business strategy under one roof (long before it was all the
rage to do so).
Initially there was discomfort. For instance, consultants prefer recommendations that are information-
rich and based on analysis, data and best practices, while designers focus on narrative and make
recommendations based on insights and intuition. Through collaborating on work, this tension was
flipped into a positive as the teams realized that a diversity of problem-solving approaches can be a
strength, and they rallied around the vision to put the human first. The purpose became very tangible
when we won joint client projects or jointly addressed heady challenges, ranging from taking the
anxiety out of home buying or better managing diseases like ALS and diabetes.
Combining two diverse cultures straight away isn't really feasible... it takes time and patience. It
requires the leadership on both sides to have open minds that are ready to flex, to see beyond a
brand identity and give credence to an organization where culture is at the heart of business.
Companies should approach culture in a top-down and organic way – it’s deliberate and ever
changing. There is no singular culture. Only a shared purpose, collaboration and a respect for the
individual can hold it all together.
Protecting and Celebrating What’s Special
No matter their size, background or culture, all
companies will enter a merger armed with their
own strengths, so it’s all about recognizing what
to combine and what to keep distinct. We
recommend companies pick their battles
carefully – and learn when to let go. In our
case, Fjord’s open space studios were one area
to protect. We knew we had something special
in them as well as our unique design
methodologies, all of which fuel creativity and
inspire and bring clients into the design and
iteration process in ways they often haven’t
experienced before. Overall, we think the key
ingredient to any successful integration is a combination of your strongest assets, capacities and talents
– in service of client needs.
For us it was about retaining Fjord’s singular focus on design and innovation to solve business
challenges at the highest level. But at first, it was like two people speaking different languages. (It
“A lot of pressure is taken
off when you recognize that
you don’t have to force a
round peg into a square hole
and accept that a company
is a culture of cultures.”
helped that Fjord joined Accenture Interactive, which is culturally most similar to Fjord and provided a
bridge to the rest of Accenture.) Through ongoing education and mutual respect, Fjord came to
understand the language and approach to technology and business consulting. At the same time,
Accenture came to understand and embrace a design-forward approach – so much so that it is
reimagining its entire employee experience, including enterprise systems and internal processes. For
instance, we used Fjord's design thinking methodologies to overhaul the dreaded annual performance
review. Inside Fjord we’ve even created a dedicated business unit called Fjord Evolution, teaching
leading companies how to elevate the importance of design in their organizations.
We set out to debunk the whole premise that cultures must unite to become one. In fact, we think
successful integration is about collaboration – it takes place while solving joint client problems. In fact,
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
On the flip side, we found that Accenture gave
our design team a world-class commercial
foundation, a global reach, a solid backbone,
and a network of thousands of the brightest,
deepest experts in virtually any area you
might come across. It helped that Fjord joined
Accenture Interactive, Accenture’s digital
agency, which provided a cultural bridge to
the rest of Accenture and offered Fjord access
to more clients than it would have had standing
alone. People who originally came from
different units developed a mutual respect and
understanding of each other’s strengths. When
empty pride and hubris is laid to rest, you
accept and discover the humble precept that there’s something to learn from everyone, a
democratizing view that the sum is greater than its individual parts. Business strategists, technologists,
designers – each bring a unique asset to the table, and the most successful companies today (like
Google) make a multi-disciplinary approach fundamental to their business. Each party united by a
common belief that they’re better together – and ultimately, raising the end game.
You Can’t Indoctrinate Culture
With so many vast differences at the outset, transparent dialogue and collaboration among leadership
were also vital for building trust. With any collaboration, it shouldn't be about the “big boys moving in
on the little guy.” We learned to check our egos at the door and became open to learning from one
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 understood there were
different perspectives at play and that our two different
operational and cultural methods could be successful together.
While Fjord had always approached problems with a more end-
user focus and Accenture more client-centric, we now collaborate
to ensure both customer and client satisfaction. And, we learned to
approach our relationships like we do for our client’s users, with
empathy for the other side.
Culture shapes employee engagement and the outcomes of any working environment and is the
backbone of any organization – big or small. And, it’s important to note that culture is dynamic, living
5 Tenets of Cultural Integration:
1. Rally around a unified vision
2. Pick your battles
3. Check your egos at the door
4. Empathy for the other side
5. Don’t try to harmonize cultures
and breathing, not something that’s static and belongs in a jar in a museum. With every new project
and through every new employee, your culture evolves. We’re a work in progress and we’re just
getting started, but we hope that our lessons learned from blending two disparate corporate cultures
will inspire others to do the same. After all, getting culture right is not just a key point of differentiation
for a company; it’s the enduring point of differentiation.
Comments? Find us on Twitter: @olof_s and @baijushah.