Integration and Differentiation

Successful companies tend to be more differentiated and more integrated than their less successful counterparts. As organizations grow, they evolve and differentiate into more and more departments or units-sales, production, human resources, and so forth. These units take on different characteristics in terms of their purpose, their structures, how they treat people, and how they orient to time. As these organizations become more differentiated, it becomes increasingly difficult to integrate the efforts of the various units. And yet there are many highly complex and differentiated companies that are also highly integrated, and these tend to be very successful.

I know a man who spent the past twenty years building the family business. It has grown to be a sizable company, an accomplishment for which he rightly feels very proud. He looks upon himself as a creative leader with a knack for seeing in to the technological future. Over the years he has made a number of risky decisions that have ended up positioning the company for significant growth.

In spite of his many accomplishments, he does not see himself as a great manager who can keep all the details in place. Given this self-assessment, he made a decision to hire a woman to be president of his most important division. She has a detail-focused orientation and is hard-driving. My friend has been delighted with the results she has produced. The woman delivers the specified numbers quarter after quarter.

Yet my friend has a problem. His brothers are also significant players in the business. Each of them sees this woman as the antithesis of the organizational culture they helped build, which has always been a place of innovation, caring, and stability. Her hard-driving, results-oriented focus does not go down well with them. They do not trust her, and they put enormous and continuous pressure on my friend to get rid of her.

My friend finds the conflict very painful. I asked him why he endures the pain. His answer was very simple: “It’s what is best for the business.”

Now this man would never see his own role in terms of differentiation and integration, yet that is what is going on. He has chosen to differentiate by hiring a woman who operates in a way that is outside the normal expectations. Her way of working causes conflict, and so the differentiated systems want to pull apart. But they cannot; they are integrated by my friend’s commitment.

Differentiation is normal and it causes conflict. Conflict turns many organizations negative. In positive organizations leaders do the work necessary to integrate differentiated systems. It is often painful work. They do it because they are committed to what is best for the organization (Quinn, Letters to Garrett: pg. 93-94).


Where is the conflict in my unit?

What am I doing to integrate differentiation?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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