Everybody in the tech scene knows the mantra that culture eats strategy for breakfast. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific Silicon Valley statement on how to build an outstanding culture, as it is a unique journey for each organisation to adjust it in time.
Founders often ignore this internal not urgent & non-life-threatening challenge, but culture spawns as soon as an organisation begins working. It is like grease in the engine – it influences everything that happens in some way. That’s why aggregated culture is the most influential factor behind every decision in a company, regardless of how big or small it is.
Creating organisational culture
Everybody is involved in creating culture, which makes adjusting existing culture extremely challenging for leadership. However, people who are the biggest connectors inside an organisation, often formal leaders or informal crucial actors (like serving DevOps, well-connected recruiters, and helpful managers) have the most influence on the culture. We are social creatures, so we copy the way of doing things from our more senior peers, and we pass it forward. The snowball effect of leading by example is real.
Until it’s directly involved, leadership often ignores managing culture. People will have a way of doing things, and it will influence the entire organisation, but you can step up and micromanage the situation.
Issues arise after reaching a certain scale of the organisation (50-150 employees) when doing things without the direct involvement of founders or leadership isn’t enough to cover all operations.
Then, culture pushes back and shows its real colours, amplifying existing cultural flaws & quirks. It’s fascinating to experience it first-hand. If there was a charismatic founder who was involved in all operations, there might be an inertia in the organisation, as without his approval nobody would be sure if their decision is correct. If there is leadership that avoids risk-taking, you can be sure that instead of doing things employees will be too cautious with their work, which will hurt the company’s performance. Every organisation has its sins to confess.
How to change a culture?
Key concept – treat it as chaining a habit (I can’t recommend „Atomic Habits” enough), but you need to do it for all people inside of the organisation. Yes, it’s that demanding.
If leadership forces change in the way an organisation works, until the crucial actors are on board, procesess with positive feedback loops are in place, and incentives for desired behaviour are implemented, there might be a lot of wasted energy and internal pushback.
Most of the time change will be officially accepted, there will be some performance by people to show that it’s properly implemented, and after a few weeks when leadership moves on, the old culture (like an old habit) will come back. If it will be forced on people, continuously, without solving hidden problems it can end up in a split into a formal and informal culture, which makes focusing on playing internal politics a much more attractive strategy.
This is a default scenario for corporations, which lose productivity when scaling, and this is why startups with more up-to-date cultures have an edge which can outcompete even bigger players.
What can I do with culture as a manager or leader?
It depends on the organisation, and what it is doing. For example, if your organisation strategy leverages your operations excellence, you don’t want to focus the whole company culture around constant experiments & lengthy brainstorming sessions looking for innovations.
As a manager you inherit „the way of doing things„, but you can actively protect your team from some parts of company culture, and adjust it accordingly to suit the goals. It’s easier as you are closer to the people, and have more interactions on daily basis, and thanks to that you are monitoring how the „way of doing things” in your team evolves in real time. Leading by example, and an iterative approach are the things to do at this level.
As a part of leadership, you have enough leverage to influence it on a company scale. This is where the fun begins, as it should be consistent and follow your business strategy. Often it’s not the case, and culture and strategy are in dissonance. Your role is to find out what the problem is and align both because when they are supporting each other truly amazing things start to happen. Similarly to what Marty Cagan said about great Product Teams, it’s extremely hard to imagine what you are missing if you never worked in such an organisation.
What are the basic habits of good culture in a creative workplace?
It can vary from place to place, as each time it’s a unique challenge, depending on the needs of people inside the organisation and business goals. However, there are a few general habit ideas, which are worth considering implementing in a startup or startup-like company which started scaling.
- Emotional safety. Make it „OK” to talk about mistakes, and learn from them publicly. Have an open anonymous channel of communication for coworkers to raise their concerns. Publicly recognise coworkers, but never criticise them.
- Implementing feedback loops for each employee. Let people know regularly (3 months) if the organisation is happy with their performance according to transparent rules. Implementing OKRs or similar shared goal frameworks will help get people on the same page. Have a transparent rescue plan for low-performing coworkers.
- Professional empathy. Respect & take into account that personal, health or family emergencies will happen. Set clear boundaries between what is professional and what is personal. Often share work-related feedback, both positive and negative.
- Fighting back against work alienation. Embrace „coffee time” discussions at the beginning of the calls. Create multidisciplinary teams who work with each other often, so they can build trust. Give space for people to share their hobbies inside the organisation.
- Differentiating outputs from outcomes. Promote competence coming from data & process excellence, not fake confidence & luck. Embrace & promote wise risk-taking. Regularly communicate on the actual desired risk-taking level.
- Focus on the problem you are trying to solve. Try to get all coworkers to put themselves in the customer’s shoes for at least a moment. Have a dedicated communication channel to share and discuss market trends. Encourage polite public discussions and passionate ones behind closed doors.
- Fighting back against management debt. Have a clear agenda before each meeting. Don’t do meetings which can be avoided by the manager or leadership reading something. Document thought processes and decisions for other coworkers & self-accountability.
- Management/leadership accessibility. Structured one-to-one meetings in a regular cadence, with the senior person being 100% focused on the junior coworker. Have a monthly all-hands meeting with crucial updates & reminders about strategic goals. Find time to respond to junior coworkers in a timely manner.
- Skilful remote work. Focus on showing deliverables every day. Have clear availability policies like „don’t check Slack after 6 pm”. Communicate availability and deep work (no disturb) to coworkers.
Hopefully, these ideas will inspire you to push your organisation in the direction of being a better, more creative, well-communicated, and risk-taking organisation. However, these are just ideas – only with positive feedback loops & right incentives can they become mainstays in the organisation.
Good luck & enjoy the ride.