Inherent to the culture assessment we created (the WorkXO assessment, now part of QuestionPro Workforce) is a scale that doesn’t use any kind of good/bad or favorable/unfavorable scale. Instead, scores are presented along a scale of traditionalist to contemporary to futurist. Here’s what we mean by those terms.

Traditionalist means aligned with traditional management, which refers to management practices that embrace the command-and-control approach that was established and perfected during the 20th century. Cultures (or pieces of a culture) that score in our model as traditionalist (i.e., between 0 and 5 on our 10-point scale) tend to favor concepts like privacy, exclusivity, risk aversion, predictability, slow-and-steady, measured change with heavy change management, and emphasis on the corporation rather than the individual.

Contemporary refers to cultures and organizations that have worked to evolve their management practices to move beyond the traditional practices of the 20th Century, but have not quite pushed the envelope to be aligned with what we are now seeing as the “future of work.” They have started to embrace ideas that are gaining popular acceptance these days, like experimentation, sharing information across silo lines, investing in professional development for employees, keeping updated on new technology, valuing diversity, promoting internal collaboration, and focusing on customer service. But they still haven’t strayed too far from the roots of traditional management, so the advances they make in areas like transparency, agility, or innovation are limited.

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Futurist is a label we use for cultures that are consistent with organizations that have transformed their management practices in ways that are setting the standards for where we are headed in the future of work. In short, they are more human-centric. They favor concepts like a rigorous focus on users both internally and externally, constant innovation and improvement, extensive transparency to enable better decision making, fluid and flexible hierarchies, and systems of trust that unleash surprising speed and agility. The case studies from our book, When Millennials Take Over, are good examples of futurist cultures, but we’ve seen others in our consulting work as well.

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, but it sounds like “futurist” is kind of good and “traditionalist” is kind of bad, so isn’t this just a good/bad scale like the others?”

Not exactly. In the big picture, we do think there is a trend toward futurist, and that we are moving away from traditional management. We believe that more and more organizations will start embracing futurist ideas—and will become more successful as they do so.

But your organization is not “the big picture.” Your organization is unique and facing specific challenges, so whether or not you “should” be futurist depends on what’s going on for you. As we like to say, if you’re a nuclear power plant, you don’t want to be futurist when it comes to innovation and change. We don’t want your employees “hacking” things and running lots of crazy experiments. That’s why our model tells you first exactly where you are on the traditionalist/futurist continuum—so you can then do the important work of figuring out if that place, for that piece of your culture, is either driving or inhibiting your success.

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Here’s an example. Below are both the traditionalist description AND the futurist description for the Culture Marker of Agility:

Traditionalist: Our hierarchy is rigid to protect the integrity and quality of our output. We tightly control decision making and change to avoid critical disruptions. We follow a protocol for decision-making and there are checks and balances to make sure they are being made in the best interest of the organization.

Futurist: Decision making is flexible based on a clear understanding of the principles that drive the success of the enterprise (rather than rigid hierarchy) and change is considered the default rather than the exception. Our people thrive in this dynamic environment where the future emerges through systemic collaboration rather than flowing from a linear plan.

Notice that both descriptions are “good.” There are reasons you should be traditionalist, and there are also reasons to be futurist. The question is, which description accurately captures what will make your organization more successful. Whichever that is, that’s the direction you want your culture to go in.


This post is part of a collection of resources that relate to the Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement.