The culture myth

Petri Dish by PNNL via Flickr

A couple of years ago, while at a bustling internet startup, our CEO bought everyone in the company a copy of Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. Although it wasn’t my favorite business book, it was nice to learn about the central role of culture at a remarkable company.

After we’d all read the book, there began in earnest an effort to create a “corporate culture” that showed how fun and unique we were, and that would attract top technical talent. Suddenly, Nerf guns and toy helicopters filled the office, but something about this effort rang hollow to me. I couldn’t put words to it, and I left for another opportunity before I gave it much of a chance one way or the other.

The very next company I worked for had a similar cultural focus, only dialed up to eleven. People whizzed about on scooters while new employees were given a tour through our deeply-held organizational values (which were literally painted all over the walls).  After a few tough months, the CEO openly wondered what had killed the culture, and vowed to “bring it back”. It was painful to watch, and made me wonder how any company can foster great culture when even this culture-obsessed workplace could go south so quickly.

I’ve since given a lot of thought to what makes up an organization’s culture, and I realized that this obsession with culture, for many organizations, is killing that same culture.

I believe that what we typically call culture is a side effect of an organization’s traits and habits. Just like a fire needs heat, fuel, and air, I believe there’s a similar “Culture Triangle”:

  1. Vision
  2. Trust
  3. Feedback

If an organization has a strong vision, high trust in its people, and tight feedback loops, it would be very difficult for it to have a “bad culture”.

In the first organization I referred to, there was a clear vision for the company and a decent feedback loop, but very little trust in the people tasked with carrying it out. I hear they’ve subsequently improved this dramatically, and also that they’re doing quite well.

In the second company, there was never a strong vision, other than to have a great culture (which I think actually distracted from the need for a real vision). More tellingly, I watched trust evaporate as we started missing targets and the company’s leadership took more and more autonomy away from its staff, evolving into a command-and-control organization.

Why startups lose their culture

This story is so common it’s generally considered inevitable: the fun, breezy startup culture becomes more staid and bureaucratic, usually around the 15-30 employee mark.

In a one-to-ten-person startup, awesome culture is essentially automatic. Almost no startup survives its first stages without strong vision, deep interpersonal trust, and lightning-fast feedback loops. There’s simply no start without a clear purpose, there’s no room for double-checking your co-founders’ work, and no way to screw up without it being completely visible to everyone.

As an organization scales up, layers are introduced, and strange things happen. That crystal-clear vision becomes murkier when it’s up against hitting a quarterly target. Hiring trustworthy people becomes difficult enough that employees now must be “managed” by people and policies. It becomes difficult to connect top to bottom, allowing feedback loops to take months, rather than hours.

But it’s not all doom and gloom… some companies reach escape velocity with their culture intact. Famously, Netflix and Github have held themselves up as examples of scaling high-performing corporate cultures. How do they do it?

Relentlessly protecting your culture

Creating a culture is easy, because if you have a company, you already have one. Your first three or four employees basically comprise your culture, and from there, the hard part is protecting it.

Here are some of my observations of patterns in culturally successful companies:

  1. Hire for culture. This means hiring people whom you plan to entrust with your vision and their execution of some part of this vision. This requires both trustworthiness and competence on their part.
  2. Keep your door open. I’ve been fortunate to work in very few places with “ivory tower” management, but it’s a killer for trust and feedback. You’ll know if you’re truly communicating that you’re open to feedback, because you won’t stop getting it.
  3. Have reviews, but don’t wait for them. It’s always uncomfortable to offer correction, but I’m incredibly grateful for the feedback I get on the team I’m on now, and feedback I’ve received from teams in the past has literally changed my life. Assume your team members will accept constructive feedback, because if you did #1 right, they will.
  4. Keep the vision clear. A vision is not a numeric target, but a reason for people to get up and come to work in the morning. What in the world are you changing? Building? Shaping? Who benefits?

What If…

…You hire untrustworthy or not-competent people? The temptation is often to remove ownership from people, but this is the slope that leads to a trust-free workplace. A good feedback loop should take care of most kinds of mistakes. If a person isn’t fulfilling their role, you’re doing them a disservice by letting them skate along, unknowingly missing your expectations. If they’re not a good fit at all, they probably don’t want to spend their time on the wrong bus any more than you want them on it.

…Your vision changes? Your vision is your organization’s purpose in existence. No matter how many “pivots” you make, if your company’s core vision changes often, you may want to examine whether you had one to begin with. That said, if it truly does change, you need to give employees ample time and reason to buy into this new vision (and recognize that some may choose not to).

…You don’t do reviews? Reviews don’t have to be formal, but they do require some discipline, even at great companies. Programmers are fortunate to often have code reviews, where peers look over each others’ work, offering questions for thought and suggestions for improvement (much like an editor for writers). I think this culture of collaborative peer reviews would be wonderful to carry into other areas of your business as well.

To put culture first, put culture last

The thread I see with running through the most successful, high-performing companies (and I feel that the company I’m at now is one of them) is that they tend not to wring their hands over “culture” too much; they’re very busy getting amazing things done. And who wouldn’t want to get up and go to work when you’re entrusted to go get amazing, meaningful things done with other amazing people?