Subculture: The secret weapon in an IT leader's arsenal

Subculture: The secret weapon in an IT leader's arsenal

You can shape a subculture quickly – as compared to spurring culture change across the entire organization. Consider these use cases and tactics to get it done

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March 20, 2019

An ever-growing number of organizations want culture change these days – and they want it quickly. We need to innovate, collaborate differently, move faster … and the magic elixir for all of those things, the story goes, is culture.

But the process of truly shifting organizational culture can be painstaking and iterative – more like turning a battleship than growing a set of cells in a petri dish for a couple of days (the only sort of culture creation that seems to proceed in a linear fashion.)

IT departments, though, might have another attractive option: Stop thinking about culture, and start thinking about subculture. Subcultures address particular populations within organizations – often, but not always, particular teams, groups, functions, divisions, business units, etc. 

[ Get lessons from Melissa Swift about how to engage everyone in transformation. Read 3 kinds of employees who hurt transformation momentum. ]

Shaping a subculture appeals to some IT leaders because it can be accomplished far more quickly than trying to spur culture change across the entirety of the organization – and it can be done using only levers for which they already have access. Here are four examples of “use cases” for creating a subculture – and tactics for getting it done:

1. IT needs to do things that are counter-cultural for the broader organization.

In the world of Agile (or just plain agility), the IT organization is challenged to take on a far flatter structure – characterized by humble leaders who embrace or even rejoice in failure. This can be a rough culture change for organizations who remain firmly mired in performance-driven, command-and-control (all too common even in 2019.) Building an egalitarian subculture within IT thus makes sense. 

Key tactic: Give leaders a short but memorable list of behaviors that will make a difference quickly. Things like, “Don’t speak until a meeting is half over,” or “Keep you calendar 10 percent open, and make sure you use the time to have ad hoc conversations,” can shift the mood within IT measurably and rapidly. 

2. IT wants to go on the same change journey as the rest of the organization, but knows the organization will move slower than IT can afford.

In some ways, this is a more frustrating state of the world: Everything is moving in the right direction, but it will take the broader organization years to get to where IT needs to be tomorrow.  Alignment of goals and values isn’t the issue – pace is.

Key tactic: Identify a few structural changes that are under IT’s control, and hit those levers hard. IT leaders may not be able to control traditional fundamental levers of organizational culture – things like performance management and rewards. But to the extent that IT leaders are empowered to make other changes, they should double down on the pieces under their control. 

Often this plays out in office space changes or the elimination of dress codes/standard working hours – but leaders should also be unafraid to play with deeper, more meaningful elements like how teams are formed or what jobs mean. 


Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory for North America and Global Accounts. In this role, she partners with clients to understand their deepest human capital challenges in the digital arena, and to address those challenges in novel and comprehensive ways spanning from strategy execution and job design to leadership development and culture shaping.  She has worked in North America, Europe, and Asia, and spends time in industries ranging from financial services and life sciences to consumer and industrial.

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