Ben Horowitz has posted a video of his talk on culture change on the A16Z blog. He gets straight to the heart of the matter: Everyone says culture is important, but in terms of advice very few have “more than the platitude” to offer people running companies about what they should do to shape or change their culture.
This is doubly frustrating as a strategist. Strategy is hard, hard work – mis-used, half-used or abused as a discipline, the downtrodden strategist can find themselves at the end of their quest to discover, define and action-plan the hell out of a plan, only to be met with a wry smile from a senior stakeholder and the invocation of Peter Drucker’s observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
I’ve always held the definition of culture to be “how we get things done around here”. Ben’s working definition is similar but a little more useful in describing what a particular culture is: the collective behaviour of an organisation. Or, as he puts it “What do people do when you aren’t there to give them direction?”
He has some easy questions to test what your culture really is (rather than what the business plan says it is)…
Does your company get back to people quickly when they call?
Are decisions made using data or intuition more often?
Do people turn up on time to things?
Are you careful when you are spending company money?
Do you always tell the truth to each other, to clients and suppliers?
It’s a useful way of thinking about culture. In getting down to what works in changing culture, Horowitz takes inspiration from the “only successful slave revolution in human history” – the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century). Most cultures of slavery relied on a culture of fear
The four rules are:
Keep what works.
Create shocking rules.
Incorporate people from other cultures at high levels in the organisation.
Make decisions that demonstrate priorities.
These mostly make sense to me – a mix of pragmatism and taking action to affect changes in how people behave. It’s about what you do and what you demonstrate to be important and effective behaviours that make the difference.
I recommend watching the whole presentation. Apart from being useful and fascinating, it’s a masterclass in engaging storytelling and presenting.
Andrew Hill at the FT challenges companies offering amazing-sounding benefits that are unlikely to ever really be used by employees without the backing of leaders and some serious culture change:
The need to have enough people available for vital work puts a natural limit on the ability of everyone to bunk off at once. But, without guidance, it may also lash them more firmly to their desks.
Sir Richard Branson was rightly lampooned for making unlimited leave at Virgin conditional on staff being “a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project”.
Discussing the Netflix policy of giving parents unlimited time off in the first year after a child, Hill says that unless leaders at the company take up the policy, or there are other nudges to encourage staff, it will be a hollow offer. The policy may be there, but culture will stop people using it…
Creative leaders can struggle with the limiting effects of seniority. They are expected at more meetings. Less of their time is their own. Everything is scheduled and less spontaneous – it seems frivolous to have diary time that is not spoken for by one plan or priority.
I was inspired to read about IDEO’s chief creative officer, Paul Bennett’s radical response to this challenge in a New York Times article. He has a Sunday night ritual of deleting meetings from his diary – as many as he can, and then sets up a desk in the middle of the office where he can be found, interrupted and bumped into serendipitously:
I bucked our internal trend of “hot desking,” where people don’t have a permanent desk. Most of our employees sign up for a desk when they come in for the day — that helps keep everyone flexible and fluid. But I wanted to be an anchor in all that fluidity. So I sat myself permanently and resolutely with our I.T. team at its help desk, which is the most visible and central spot in our San Francisco office.
I think of the help desk as an overlap between a coffee bar and a hacked-together technological lifeguard station. The people there are full of energy and fun. Sitting high up on a stool with them has encouraged people to approach me spontaneously. This lets conversations and interactions happen naturally over the course of the workday. I try to spend about half my day at the help desk and the other half doing what I call “doctor’s rounds,” when I walk through the office and talk to people if they request it or if I feel that they are receptive to it.
I now allow myself to be pulled, to drift in and out, and to be available for five-minute or two-hour interactions depending on what’s needed. Because of that, I feel as if I am part of a living, breathing organism, and responding to its needs rather than simply running from place to place with a calendar in my hand.
Of all of this – and a strange thins about a lamp made of a desiccated cod – it’s the first bit I like most. Making saying “no” part of the planning routine, creating space for unplanned things to happen. I think I will try that out…
The North Face Ultra Trail Mont Blanc race is taking place today. The runners will cover over a 100km on some unseasonably wintry mountains in the next few hours.
There’s a double interest here for me. I love running, and seem to love running ever increasing distances. So ultra-marathons have a fascination for me, even if I may never get to run one.
There’s also a professional interest here of course – The North Face’s sponsorship of the event and some of the elite competitors and the content marketing that comes out of it shows us how this sort of thing can be done well.
Image: M’learned colleague, Dr Ryan is responsible for his energy
Partly because I’ve finally got around to reading Tony Hsieh of Zappos’ Delivering Happiness*, I’ve been thinking a lot about culture at the moment.
The other big reason for thinking about culture is, of course, that the start-up I’m a co-founder of, Brilliant Noise, is growing and soon its culture will begin to evolve, or emerge, if you will.
You can’t design a culture – that would be weird. You have to cultivate it, I realise. Like lots of activities where emergence is important, you end up drawing on analogies about gardening.
We’re clear about the values that are important to us, we’re clear about the shape and texture of the culture that will emerge. The effort goes into making sure the conditions are right, the seeds are planted, the… well, you get the horticultural gist of it.