written by cyle gage
version 0.1, last updated 12/06/14
The phrase "company culture" is a terrible buzzword that's been appropriated by high-valuation tech startups, but in reality it represents something that's important for any group of people working together over a period of time. Culture is simply the norms and shared values and interests of a group of people who exist around each other. Company culture (what I'll refer to as simply "culture" throughout the rest of this) is that same thing, except specifically what emerges within a bunch of people working together, whether it's everyone across a company or the culture of just one team.
A strong culture can separate a weak business from a strong one. It can make the difference between just building another app or service and building one that has a definable personality and style. Tech startups have commandeered the word because they've loudly cited "culture" as the reason they're valued so highly. It's not an altogether false claim — Slack is awesome because it's built by a group of people who obviously share strong opinions on how chatrooms and instant messengers should work nowadays. Their culture is evidenced by the way their services and apps work, the way they communicate, and the way we perceive them.
But how do you achieve that culture? Where does it come from? How can you cultivate it, nurture it, and utilize it? What do you do when it breaks?
Culture always starts small. It begins with a team of people who literally spend a lot of time together, probably because they're physically in close proximity to each other. Work in the same office as 5 to 10 other people? You have a culture already, you might not know it yet.
It's very difficult to have a strong culture if the scale is too large or the people in the space keep shifting. It's hard for culture to grow in a room of 30 people — often it fractures into smaller cultures. It's also hard for culture to grow if people are constantly coming and going, if the players are inconsistent. A retail establishment may have a hard time growing a culture if no set of people are ever working at the same time consistently.
You just literally have to spend a lot of time with a group of people to form a culture. Think about it: a full-time job stereotypically means Monday to Friday 9AM to 5PM in an office or some other shared space. That's eight hours a day, forty hours a week. If you're on a team of five people, you're probably interacting with them all day, or most of it. That's a lot of time to spend with each other for weeks and weeks on end. You'll hear the common quip: "I spend more time with you people than I do with my family."
As long as one or two of the people in the group are friendly and outgoing, you'll start to share jokes, stories, gripes, favorite movies, etc. Organically, a shared vocabulary and set of norms emerges. The acceptable social behaviors will normalize, as they always do with groups of people. If that same group of people doesn't move on to other jobs and sticks it out, you'll have a strong culture within a few months.
Even if it's as simple as making sure to brew another pot of coffee after you draw the last cup — that's a part of your culture.
Common factors of a high-performing team include having clear goals and a strong culture. Together, they create shorthands to getting work done. A group of people who have been around each other for more than a few months easily knows who's the person to go to for a certain problem. Furthermore, the group learns who not to go to. Culture forms both positively and negatively in this way. As the group begins to learn what shared interests it has, it begins to learn the minefield of discreet disinterest.
Culture starts growing as it takes up the social space in between formal meetings, deadlines, and expectations. Commonly, a tech startup will try to kickstart its culture by implementing policies on day one that informalize the social structure. Practices like having no bosses, only allowing "standing meetings" or "whiteboard sessions", or relaxing the dress code. The idea is that if you make work look less like our broad cultural understanding of stereotypical office work, you'll jumpstart the process of making people comfortable enough with each other that they'll work together more effectively.
And while these impulses are not without some merit, they're also trying to shortcut a process that is embedded in time. They typically lead to shallow culture — one that can change very quickly as it doesn't actually have strong roots, because it has no time to actually take root. You see the evidence of this in panicky memos sent from CEOs of tech startups to their employees. It's a misunderstanding of what actually brings people together to do great work.
Regardless of what a founder or CEO of a hip flashy tech startup wants, your company's or department's culture will change as time goes on. Like most organic things, it evolves. Your culture moves from being in-between deadlines and meetings and starts to inform the strength of deadlines and the formality of meetings. Your culture begins to make problems clear, it starts to divide people, it starts to draw lines. It shows that one group is comfortable while the other is on-edge because it feels excluded.
One cultural practice that's universally experienced in offices is the closed-door discussion. A few people pile into somebody's office, closes the door, and proceeds to sit around bitching about someone else or some meeting or whatever. This is an expression of culture trying to self-correct by indirect means. Instead of actually tackling the source of the problem, you get together to figure out how to get around it. It's not always pretty — seldom does bitching lead to constructive criticism. However, at some point culture moves from behind closed doors to the front-facing meetings.
This is where culture breaks upon an important impasse — do you fire people to fix a cultural problem? Do you try to talk and work it out candidly? Do you just quit because you've had enough?
The worst thing that can happen to a culture is the us versus them mentality. It happened at Apple: the Macintosh people began to hate the Apple II people. It happened at Microsoft: they designed their teams to contain employees who were required to compete with each other. It's happened at many companies as they suddenly had to compete with "game-changers" and "disruptive" startups. It happens within many of those same "disruptive" startups as they experience the growing pains of going from only ten employees to hundreds over the course of a year, and suddenly needing a Human Resources department.
At this point, the culture of the company may be a complicated machine. What once was one culture shared among the ten or thirty people at a company is now several cultures spread around several teams and departments, each of those teams contributing to a company-wide culture that's just a mashup of the subset cultures. And probably a CEO/Co-Founder sitting at the top, wondering what happened.
The best thing to do at this point is stop everything and take time to self-reflect on all levels. Don't quit. Don't fire anybody. Sit down and talk about the culture. Talk about how each team operates, what norms they've established that they may not even know about. This requires candid group discussion, which can be extremely uncomfortable. One team may be technically doing a great job, but alienating every other team because they're assholes. Another team may be the most responsive in the company, but produces no valuable results.
All of these issues need to be discussed, and not just by managers and vice presidents. You lose the employees who are actually doing the work if you don't include them. The "us versus them" may become the people doing the actual work versus the bosses in meetings all day. Same test is required: both sides need to talk candidly about it.
The only way these candid talks and expections and resolutions can fail is if they're not documented. Culture is ever-evolving, and works in cycles. If you don't document your cultural self-studies, you're doomed to lose a grasp on them. As people leave and get hired, they won't know what your culture is, and they'll have a hard time figuring it out. Even if you keep the same group of people, the culture will sway back to what it used to be, or turn into something new, and you'll be lost without a throughline back to where you were.
The biggest thing that separates cultures that are successful from ones that are meandering and only successful by chance is a documented, shared history. The Valve Employee Handbook may be the strongest example of a company successfully documenting its culture. And it feels like both a playful document and a serious history and prescription for success.
Most major soulless corporations get this documentation stage all wrong because they outline things like mission, vision, and values, which are always store-bought cliches. The culture to write down, in order for the documentation to be effective, are the literal goings-on of how a place works. How and why do you meet? What is the expectation for coming in to work on time? Whose offices are open for visiting, whose are closed? How can you get promoted, how do you file a complaint? What movies do we like, what music interests do we share, when's the next time we'll go out for a drink after work?
These are the questions that define a highly effective culture, they're worth answering as a collection of people, and those answers are worth writing down and revisiting a few times every year.
If you manage to achieve a strong culture that's a source of pride and joy for the staff you work with, be happy. If there are issues, address them swiftly and openly. Encourage people to stay candid, stay open, expect the best of each other, write things down and keep them public. The evidence of your culture will be clear in the results of everyone's work, the way they communicate to each other and the outside world, and how they're perceived by people who are not a part of the culture.
Go on back to Cylesoft now.