A Conversation About Culture
I’m in a very contemplative mood. In between watching Interstellar for the 3rd time, checking out YouTube videos of Slavoj Zizek and reflecting on the politics surrounding Snowden and Assange, I read a little book called ‘How Google Works‘. This book as you may have heard, was written by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg to cover their learnings as they helped build Google. One chapter in particular – the chapter on culture – resonated very strongly with me, as this was something that we continue to question about our own agency, S1T2.
Below I document the discussion that took place when I shared this extract along with my thoughts to Chris and Naimul – our Creative Director and Chief Technology Officer respectively.
Most companies’ culture just happens; no one plans it. That can work, but it means leaving a critical component of your success to chance. Elsewhere in this book we preach the value of experimentation and the virtues of failure, but culture is perhaps the one important aspect of a company where failed experiments hurt. Once established, company culture is very difficult to change, because early on in a company’s life a self-selection tendency sets in. People who believe in the same things the company does will be drawn to work there, while people who don’t won’t.
One of the most important academic expressions of this idea appeared in a 1987 journal article by organisational psychologist Benjamin Schneider, “The people make the place”. In this influential paper, Schneider lays out an attraction-selection-attrition model of how organisational cultures evolve from the traits and choices of individuals. “Attraction” refers to the tendency of job seekers to flock to organisations with which they sense a good fit; “selection” means that a company’s current employees tend to hire people who are like them; “attrition,” too, isn’t random, as employees tend to leave organisations with which they are no longer compatible. As attraction, selection and attrition processes play out over time, an organisation becomes increasingly homogenous in its culture.
CP: Our company’s growth can’t be automated, conversely it can’t be tied down to the efforts of ‘we’ few. If it’s true all cultures are destined to be homogenous, then our task is pretty clear; a culture that embodies the company’s formula for success. If we want to scale, the members of the culture need to police that culture (thus the homogeny), it’s the only way we can continue to move forward in age and number. So allowing counter-productive cultural elements to endure is actively working towards our own peril.
TT: But what is our culture, not our aspirational one but our current one? Here’s what I think it is…
- Team – We work for each other; when someone really needs help another generally steps up.
- Personal – We have a sense of loyalty to each other that extends beyond the traditional work sense.
- Hard Work – When a project needs completing it gets done, even if it means long hours.
- Aspiration of Quality – We strive to make good work that exceeds client expectations.
- Self made – We understand that success or failure is our own doing.
- Candor – There is not enough constructive criticism or opinions shared. Is this due to fear of being wrong?
- Scope – Unless personally asked, everyone tends to only do what they need to. How many people will provide feedback to an open email, or provide a solution to an open brief?
- Inexperience – We have a young multi-disciplinary team; everyone has generally started as a newly graduated. Are we only as good as the best of us?
- Lack of Guidance – It’s amazing that before we set up our KPIs no one had goals, even those that have been here for years. Our organisational structure is flat and without titles so i’m curious to understand what it is that motivates the team (apart from financial incentive). What are our personal goals?
- Challenge/Comfort – Without goals, without nothing to aspire to, we can’t challenge ourselves. Are our yearly goals seen as homework that must be done to keep the bosses happy, or milestones that genuinely want to be achieved?
CP: If we’re responsible for this culture then we should focus on how the four of us embody that culture and assess if it is the formula for success. To focus on candid, how candid are we with each other? And how good are we at taking that? How much do we challenge each others field of expertise? Can we? Or do we just take it as gospel? Do we respect each other enough to be candid? Do we respect the giver enough to not take it as a personal slight? I’m not convinced, mainly because I know how hard it is for me personally, I know I self censor and I know I can take things personally or the wrong way, and I know i’m afraid of being wrong, which is showing a fear of failure in itself. I think we’ve come a long way in the last few years, for me that open debate we’ve been having over the weekend is great, I’m tempted to think this discussion should be in the same open forum. What do we lose by showing the others how much time and thought we invest in our culture and values? Do we respect them enough to witness and join in such a debate? That’s a step towards candor.
TT: The open debate for me was an example of lack of engagement – i.e. it’s effectively just you and Naimul. I was speaking to Soph about this and the conclusion we reached was that sometimes people may see debate as confrontation (as opposed to debating for the sake of discussion and learning), and so may look to avoid it out of fear of confrontation.
NK: I think you guys have identified a pretty crucial part of the issue and I think this is a very human problem that we all struggle with. It’s very easy for people to take things personally in a debate/conversation and feel like their personal reputation is on the line. Particularly in a public forum. It’s not easy to only focus on the issue at hand and often complex conversations can be trivialised by a simple line such as ‘so and so got owned’, making the rest of the conversation seem irrelevant. We need to ensure that it is ok for people to disagree on a topic without being subject to ridicule for their opinions but obviously we can’t let this disagreement result in a mutiny when it comes to work. At the end of the day, we have to make decisions for projects (whether right or wrong) and we need the team to follow these decisions whether they agree with them or not. On an individual basis I think the best we can do is attempt to be as objective and careful in the tone and content of our discussions and try to keep it as on point as possible. I’ve probably been more guilty of this than anyone else and is something I’m trying to actively work on.
Scope – Unless personally asked, everyone tends to only do what they need to. How many people will provide feedback to an open email, or provide a solution to an open brief?
NK: This is an interesting one and to be honest I disregard a large amount of discussion topics because I feel there is nothing for me to add or I am pre-occupied with another problem. I think we need to consider that commenting on everything takes it’s own time and effort and if everyone gets involved in everything this will actually cause much more inefficiency than benefit. The conversation me and CP had was based on content that is quite long and dry and frankly may not have interested many. If people genuinely have no interest or time to delve into the subject matter I think it’s fine for them to stay out of it.
CP: I don’t think we can expect people to participate on every issue, but I think identifying key issues to our culture that should be important to members are worth coaxing participation for, or even demanding it. To quote the big CAT (Ed Catmull),
“It isn’t enough to merely be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, on going process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute.”
CP: A strong culture is a distinct culture, it should look definably different when compared to others. So members can say this is how we do things, this is why. For me questioning and debating things that are closer to home will help define and change the culture, ultimately prove it.
Inexperience – We have a young multi-disciplinary team; everyone has generally started as a newly graduated. Are we are only as good as the best of us?
Lack of Guidance – It’s amazing that before we set up our KPIs no one had goals, even those that have been here for years. Our organisational structure is flat and without titles so i’m curious to understand what it is that motivates the team (apart from financial incentive). What are our personal goals?
Challenge/Comfort – Without goals, without nothing to aspire to, we can’t challenge ourselves. Are our yearly goals seen as homework that must be done, or milestones that genuinely want to be achieved?
NK: From my perspective I would like to see each person able to contribute something unique to the company. There is no point in having people who are just shittier versions of ourselves as employees. From a dev perspective, I currently see Liam as a front-end specialist and Hoan as a back-end specialist. This doesn’t mean they know nothing about the other’s field, on the contrary I think they’re constantly giving each other help and ideas and doing work that is not in their area of specialisation. It just means we are able to give them an identity and a clear direction to develop themselves without our constant feedback. This model leads to mutual respect of each other’s knowledge base and although team members can push each other, I think the biggest push to test employees will come from us. My worry with the concept of everyone doing everything is that it means that they do everything at an average level and there is constant intra-fighting to show superiority over other team members in all areas. People want to feel special in some way, and I feel like giving them something to identify with as being the best at in the company will go a long way in doing that.
I am well aware though that we are a creative company and that developers are only a small make-up of our team. However in an ideal scenario I would want to strip the developer/designer identity altogether. Just as developers know about each others area of expertise, I feel like designers should be learning about the development technologies used to implement their designs. Currently designers are in a silo’d mentality where they don’t look beyond their design platforms and this results in two things. Developers not respecting their opinions when it comes to development ideas and designers not having the confidence or knowledge to push developers. The new wave of UX designers and creative coders shows me that there are plenty out there that can be creative from a design perspective and also understand code. Granted we can’t afford any of these high end guys but it’s what we should be striving for our internal staff to be.
TT: Just to return to the topic of an ‘open forum’. From experience dealing with the team if we hold a discussion some will speak up while others will sit back, and even those that speak up don’t really give much insight as they haven’t really given the topic much thought – this is probably also in-part because we tend to spring these type of things on them instead of plan ahead. Here’s an idea though, what about a real internal debate, where we have two sides and a FOR and AGAINST on debating the topic of ‘is our company culture good?’. This would effectively force the team to think of the issue, not sure if this is counter productive to the point though – i.e. you can’t force culture.
CP: To paraphrase Naimul’s last paragraph, a topic debate worth participation from the designers could be; “If you think with what you know, you’re limited by what you know.”