Tooling to build high performing organizations.
Similar to leadership, (organizational) culture is a topic many people talk about. Ben Horowitz describes culture in his book, The hard things about the hard Things, in my opinion incisive. He says culture is not giving yoga classes at work or allowing dogs in the office but more building all office desks out of doors like at Amazon or moving fast and break things at Facebook or 10$ for every minute you are late to a meeting with an entrepreneur at Andreessen Horowitz.
Things like these make a company unique and I think many organizations have something like this, useful or not. In this blog post I want to lay out which dimensions, culture (omitting organizational from now on) should be made from, and try to provide ideas for building these dimensions.
Contrary to the previous post this one is more defined, listing 5 dimensions that I believe to be the most important ones. Although lists of things have the impression of being complete I am sure there are others that should be in it, but haven’t been discovered by me yet. What I am certain about is that culture is something that has to be actively shaped and lived, foremost by organizational leaders, in a way that everybody believes leadership or management believing in culture.
These dimensions might feel like organizational values to you, they can be, but no matter what an organization’s values are, all of the attributes below are required to build a great organization. Why required? An organization will certainly survive without living cultural attributes described in this blog post but do living them makes a significant difference in how people work together. Building great things is good, building great things in a great way is better. The way people work together in an organization affects innovation, agility (agility as in how fast can your organization shift focus, pivot? How stable is it during re-orgs or even desk moves?), employee retention and so much more.
Building a great culture always starts with communication, when people come together and work together they need to communicate with each other one-on-one, in smaller groups of work streams, in teams, divisions, departments and throughout the whole organization. A culture of communication means that everybody is aware of misinformation having a big negative impact on productivity, and that everybody fights against misinformation.
In an hierarchical organization, communication can happen vertically, horizontally or laterally in form of unstructured communication or meetings.
Vertical communication usually works well as it feels, also in big organizations, natural. There is informal communication, one-on-ones, team meetings, team events between reports and managers. Important to notice is that most vertical communication happens with a hop interval of one level, meaning information is passed down or up between direct report(s) and manager. Horizontal communication can be a bit trickier but this communication is usually pushed by leaders of a division/department to optimize globally from a division/department perspective which is only local optimization from an organization perspective.
Where it get’s interesting is horizontal communication that exceeds the hop interval of one level, and lateral communication.
Horizontal communication requires more preparation and becomes more formal the bigger the hop interval and audience, formality being a reducing factor on the amount of communication. This communication is one of the more critical ones as it usually affects how management, and often the very leaders of an organization fight misinformation in a company. The most important attribute of this communication is that whoever transmits information thinks and ideally validates assumptions about what misinformation is there and delivers information that simply helps. Discovering what helps can be done through informal communication initiated by the information giver or keeper.
Lateral communication, meaning for example a software engineer talks to a sales director and not just once a year, is something that has to be put into a structure and usually doesn’t just happen. I was recently introduced to the term buddy team, which is a great way of putting it. Buddy teams are virtual teams of people from different teams/departments/divisions that meet regularly and discuss problems, ideas together being also a great tool to fight Conway’s law.
A good first step to improve communication is to have better meetings. Meetings are where people come together the most in an organization. A lot of ideas for better meetings are covered by Steven Sinofsky (Board Partner at a16z) in his blog post Reaching Peak Meeting Efficiency or Michael Lopp (VPE at Slack) in his blog post How to Run a Meeting (both curate excellent blogs and have many other great articles).
Although obviously being a part of communication, I think feedback needs a dedicated dimension and dedicated attention, as it’s the primary tool to improve each other. Netflix is publicly known to have a great culture of feedback and the following example proofs that to me:
Borrowing from Firstround’s great article 6 Must Reads for Managers to Give Feedback That Helps People Grow
They […managers] would recite in detail all the bad behavior of the person they were annoyed with. Then she […Patty McCord] would ask, ”What did she say when you told her that?” Typically, the person complaining would say, ”I can’t say this to her!” She’d push back, ”But you said it to me, didn’t you?” and they’d look sheepish, realizing it wasn’t right to unload behind the person’s back.
Building a culture of feedback where it’s behaviour instead of identity (attack the idea not the person), where it’s observation instead of evaluation (part of non violent communication) requires a lot of work. People need to practice as giving feedback is a skill that needs to be learned and trained, ideally in groups through rehearsals as part of a company wide program.
After feedback was given, it must be actioned on. Coming up with great solutions to problems communicated through feedback depends on how good we can work together, which is defined as collaboration.
The creational power people have, when working together in teams is more than the sum of the team’s individuals. Taking a Scrum based software development team of 7 as example, it’s more efficient to manage everyone individually, thus having 7 Sprints and effectively optimizing for minimal dependencies and collaboration but maximal time spent working. In the long term this is impossible to maintain due to impractical knowledge sharing and less effective than people working together in groups of 3. Fixing this on a team level is the first step towards better or even existing collaboration in an organization.
Improving collaboration between teams, departments or even divisions is a bit trickier. Facebook has quite a powerful idea here “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem”, if truly lived and enforced it makes people work together vertically and laterally.
Collaboration means people working together, once we are, we need rules, processes and guidelines providing structure on how to work together. I am a big fan of writing these things down as it requires the introducing person to deeply think about the problem, being a barrier of introducing rules, processes or guidelines that are sub-ideal (useless or slowing down). Smart individuals working and figuring things out together in a team are often way more effective than a pre defined process can ever be, unfortunately I think there is no formula for when to define a process and I don’t think there has to be one as experience and feeling should indicate when processes are needed.
Having defined structures for the big things like development process end-to-end, while expecting that these structures are followed, we need trust for everything else. In an organization where people trust each other the amount of micromanagement goes to zero.
People joining organizations are hired to solve problems and create value, the people that hire these need to trust them on doing the job, by setting goals and defining the what, the how is up to the people doing the actual work.
If an organization uses this model there needs to be a strong safety net, it needs to be ok to make mistakes or fail. Since we know how to give useful feedback and communicate throughout the organization the same mistakes aren’t made more than a few times. In organizations where it’s stick or carrot people are afraid to make mistakes and fear is the single biggest productivity killer.
As described in my previous blog post, I believe that everybody can be a leader, organizations should create an environment where leadership is promoted and recognized. Leadership groups should have the goal to expand themselves by empowering people to become leaders, without needing to become managers.
To reach an ideal state in all the dimensions above, a lot of effort and time is required. Building an organization that just works, can be done without all this above, building a great organization that builds great things requires that the terms communication, feedback, collaboration, trust and safe failure and leadership aren’t just written down somewhere but actively lived. The main goal of this blog post is to get people to think and talk (!) about how to improve or even build a culture in their organization, there are countless situations every day where we can act with the dimensions above in mind. We’re spending a big part of our life working in professional environments and why shouldn’t we make working together better.
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