X : In a company, what really matters for culture is having the right purpose.
Me: In a car, what really matters for efficiency is having the right direction.
X : That doesn't make sense, it's orthogonal, almost independent of direction.
Me : Car or company?
— Simon Wardley (@swardley) January 7, 2020
We discuss culture a lot.
So, this is my take on it. Company culture is what develops from other things in the company. It’s a consequence. It’s the mishmash of how you react to someone who turns up at 0905 versus someone who leaves at 1735. It’s whether half your staff take smoke breaks and you don’t smoke. It’s whether there are good biscuits in the biscuit tin or whether the coffee is “ok”.
Just like you can’t just turn a car to the North West and then hit the gas, you can’t set down a company direction and demand the company work to that. You have to change the underlying causes. You take into account the shape of the roads, the timing of the traffic, whether you have gas and whether or not you need to have other people with you in the car. It’s a lot easier if you’re going alone but that’s not the point of a car or indeed a company.
We have a workshop later this week about culture. I think it’s important to record and communicate your culture, to notice patterns for good or ill and delivering on what you think you should be delivering.
You have to work on the causes.
It’s possible to get it very wrong, too.
When I joined Nortel, I sat through a lot of courses talking about culture – their refrain was “We want you to try hard, we don’t have blame culture”. Of course, if you don’t have a blame culture, you don’t need to say it. If you have to say “we don’t have a blame culture”, then you actually do. It’s like a political party that says they’re not racist. Take from that what you will.
My first “proper” company was started on a very noble principle. I’d spent the previous six years running the Northern Ireland Mac User Group which was mostly an online forum and mailing list. It also was a “open my doors” thing where every couple of months folks would turn up to my house with their busted Mac and I’d fix it over a coffee. From this, I started Mac-Sys – despite threats of doom from incumbent companies who had done very little over the years to improve the lot of Mac users in the province. (Yes, I enjoyed the schadenfreude when we would go to their liquidation sales.) The culture was right; be really good at the thing you’re really good at, super serve the customer (a label I learned from Andrew Ferris of Smalltown America Records, and always consider the outcomes of everything you do. The culture is still right – we’re the only IT company I know who don’t turn up in short sleeved shirts with clip-on ties. Treat employees right and they treat customers right.
A few years ago I had a manager (Hi Noel) who put out a missive that “morale had better improve or else”. Can you imagine what the team response will be?
Shouting from the pulpit that you want better culture or shaming individuals who don’t fit into your narrow view of culture is a shockingly bad way to CEO (yes, using CEO as a verb isn’t great either). Articulating culture as being against certain behaviours or worse “I don’t like this. But I’ll know good culture when I see it” is monstrous.
I’d suggest that conversations about culture shouldn’t be about culture. They should be about the causes. What are the root causes of culture.
Solve those and you’ll develop the right culture.