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?

  • Nick Stewart

    Trust, Vision, & Feedback. I love it.

    The second company you mentioned definitely suffered from lack of consistant vision. People in different departments did not all have the same vision.

    What’s your favorite business book?

    • Brandon Hays

      Yeah, I love those guys but I’m surprised to find myself say that I’d pick a company with a solid, clear vision over one without, even if they execute well.

      As for business books, I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to find one I really like (though I don’t count the Arbinger institute stuff as business books). Open to recommendations though!

  • mthorley

    Your insight about vision, trust, and feedback is great, though I think it would be helpful if you addressed, or at least defined, each of them individually.

    I especially like your remarks about not waiting for reviews and the importance of regular informal feedback.

    It’s also worth noting that feed back works both ways. You mention peer review, and bottom up feedback, but feedback must also consistently flow top down. It’s not enough to just have a big clear vision. The vision must be regularly communicated, reiterated, and practically applied to day-to-day operations.

    This relates to your point about untrustworthy and not-competent people. Apparently not-competent people, may only be so, because they haven’t been given clear and consistent feedback.

    I’ve seen great people let go, or leave, because the feedback was unclear or insufficient.

    • Brandon Hays

      Good point: Vision, Trust, and Feedback are such large subjects they almost all deserve their own writeups.

      Trust, to me, means the difference between delegating a *task* and delegating *ownership*. Many managers delegate without giving up ownership, which leeches trust out of a relationship. Agile addresses this by delegating ownership to teams, who then self-manage internally, which I’ve seen work quite well.

      I totally agree that feedback is a loop that has to be open in both directions. Trusting someone to execute on an overall vision and frequently letting them know how they’re doing is often the difference between someone who flounders in a position and someone who totally rocks it.

  • Jim Gay

    Great post!

  • Nathan

    Well written and articulated. It reminds me of another article on a similar subject. Its thesis was “Have a mission, not a mission statement.”

    I would love an inside view on the difficulties of scaling a great culture from someone at Github or Netflix.

  • Anonymous

    Really like this post, and agree with it too. I love companies that have a unique culture they can call their own, but it’s so easy to tell when it’s authentic vs. contrived.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Satya Narayan

    Awesome post. I totally agree. Culture should just reflect the people working there. People shouldn’t be molded to fit a particular culture.

  • Ali Dada

    If anything, culture should be limited to not having anal management/team leads. Beyond this, leave people alone and mind your own business.

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  • John E. Smith

    Great post and right on the mark… culture can not be maintained as a company grows… it must grow as well. Put the same budget and energy to culture as you do to accounting and it can grow just as definitive, and put in a system that helps measure, track and support culture.

  • Ryan Carson

    Great post! Thanks.

  • Ana R. Alvarado

    Excellent post on company culture! Your use of heat, fuel, and air as a metaphor for vision, trust, and feedback really shows how essential these are in company culture. Without these, a genuine viable culture can’t exist. As @mthorley mentioned, feedback flow from the top down is imperative in addition to peer-to-peer and bottom-up feedback. Like you say, there is no need to be formal but these are a must.

    I would also add a fifth point to your list: Do the right thing. No matter what situation presents itself, act ethically and with integrity. Your company will be better for it. Mistakes will be made, that’s a fact–we are human after all. However, the steps you take to correct those mistakes if/when they happen will make your team and company even stronger. And trust, your team members will take note.

  • Pat Maddox

    “Creating a culture” always rings of silly horseshit to me. Look at any human culture throughout history and tell me which ones were “created” *. Cultures aren’t created, they evolve, and they do so as a result of the people living in that nascent culture and the interactions they have with one another.

    Here’s how the nerf gun / toy helicopter scenario *should* play out, for it to work.
    Day 1: Bob brings a nerf gun to the office. Shoots it at Sally. Sally laughs, makes fun of Bob, whatever
    Day 2: Sally brings a toy helicopter to the office for some arial revenge on Bob. The CEO sees this and laughs with everyone because he’s happy with the work they’re doing and is glad to see them having fun together.

    Of course, Sally might *not* laugh at Bob’s nerf gun, and she might *not* rebut with a toy helicopter arial assault. In that case, nerf guns and toy helicopters might not be a good fit for the company culture.

    In scenario 1 (Sally enjoys being nerf gun attacked), leaving a box of nerf guns and toy helicopters in the break room would be “hollow” as you put it. In scenario 2 (Sally does not enjoy being nerf gun attacked), doing the same would be disastrous.

    I would say that your second company’s culture was fake too. The best indicator of that is how quickly it evaporated when things started going south. CEOs for whatever reason are totally fine with nerf wars when the company is making money hand over fist, but when things aren’t going so well then the boss starts asking why people aren’t working. It shows that he/she doesn’t actually value a place where people work together effectively and take breaks now and again and enjoy each other’s company, but rather is concerned only with (quarterly) results and seeks out band-aid fixes for serious underlying problems.

    Awesome post.

    * I’m not an anthropologist so I won’t be surprised if someone comes around and refutes this in two minutes. Hopefully I made my point though.

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