It’s been a personal mission of mine to try to find the appliable wisdom of digital transformation and culture change.
But to generalise can be counterproductive and it’s hard to think of case studies as anything more than the sum of a million parts.
So, for my latest post on culture, I’ve scoured the web for my favourite, insightful quotes. This is not a roundup of ambiguous one-liners or mawkish recruitment pleas (see Ashley Friedlein’s tweet below for an enjoyably cynical take on transparency).
This is a considered collection of disarming commentary.
Hope you enjoy.
@herrhuld We need a new word for tech companies trying to out-culture each other?
— Ashley Friedlein (@AshleyFriedlein) October 29, 2015
1. The challenge now is not about I.T.
Mike Bracken, former head of digital, Goverment Digital Service (GDS):
..to ensure that [data scientists, information architects, technical architects, product managers, service managers, software engineers, designers of all types, user researchers and delivery and test managers] can operate to their full potential, the people and organisations with which we work must be imbued by the culture and ethos of the web generation.
This means they understand that what used to be hard is easier, and what used to be expensive is cheap and becoming cheaper. But above all they must understand that the challenge now is not about information technology, but about designing, developing and delivering great, user-centred digital services.
2. No puppies and rainbows
Jack Welch (former GE CEO) and Suzy Welch (author) in Fortune:
Soft culture matters as much as hard numbers. And if your company’s culture is to mean anything, you have to hang — publicly — those in your midst who would destroy it.
It’s a grim image, we know. But the fact is, creating a healthy, high-integrity organisational culture is not puppies and rainbows.
3. Most people don’t know why they’re clapping…
Mike Curtis, VP engineering, Airbnb:
I’m not sure why, but sometimes a team will applaud a small victory, then more people will start clapping, then suddenly the entire product and engineering area is a din of applause and cheers. Most people don’t know why they’re clapping, they just want to show support and have fun.
Maybe that’s what good culture is about. Defaulting to an attitude of support and celebrating others’ successes.
Every company has some kind of culture. Some maintain it with meticulous attention, others just let it happen and hope for the best. Either way one fact remains: good culture creates an environment where people can do their best work, bad culture is soul-destroying.
4. Culture guides discretionary behaviour
Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, Harvard Business School:
Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems.
Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time.
5. Of the web, not on the web
Mike Bracken, former head of digital, GDS:
We need fewer meetings between large budget holders to discuss procurement, and more stand-up meetings and daily releases based on user need. Or in short, we can do much more, more quickly by using the web, and digital tools and services internally, to collaborate.
..In short, we are not just on the web, but of the web. And our culture and governance must reflect that.
6. A thousand things, a thousand times
Brian Chesky, founder, Airbnb:
Culture is a thousand things, a thousand times. It’s living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall.
7. Emulating the personality of the founder
Molly Graham, former culture manager, Facebook:
Companies tend to reflect everything about them - their personality, strengths, weaknesses. So when you start defining culture in an intentional way, first look at yourselves.[…]
If a founder is competitive, the company will be more aggressive and competitive. If they are analytical and data-driven, the company will tend to make metrics-based decisions.
8. The danger of experts
Pierre Raynaud Richard, software engineer, Facebook:
Innovation can be crippled, as new ideas are expected to come from the individuals who are least likely to generate truly new ideas (because they’re so deeply involved in and biased by the details of the current design and implementation), and these individuals are given implicit or explicit authority to dwarf disruptive ideas from the outside.
9. Tools for efficient collaboration
Vijay Pandurangan, NY site lead for engineering, Twitter, wrote a fantastic blog on the topic of video conferencing (doesn’t sound too appealing, I know).
Vijay goes into great detail about time saved by optimising meeting room setup, to avoid 10 minutes of every half an hour meeting being taken up with tech difficulty.
The more we reduce the cost and pain of remote collaboration, the more efficiently we – or any company – can run.
We’re already a highly distributed company that takes advantage of a great deal of cross-office collaboration. Further improvements in VC technology will really unlock our ability to efficiently interact with the best employees – current and future – wherever they might be.
10. Making it obvious
Naureen Manekia Seyal, Head of People Ops, Medium:
I have a hypothesis that making our culture and values obvious to people outside of Medium will reduce ambiguity and they will be more comfortable applying for our jobs.
11. Who is paddling?
Ev Williams, founder, Medium, on startup culture:
…when you’re in a small boat, you can see who’s paddling hard and who’s looking around.
12. What is possible and what’s not?
Tom Loosemore, former deputy director, GDS, commenting on its DWP team:
They’re open with each other about what is and isn’t working, and honest with stakeholders about what is and isn’t possible. They know the value of such a culture, and fight tooth and nail to protect it and maintain it.
13. Failing fast
Alex Roetter, head engineering, Twitter:
We try to build teams that thrive in an environment with a clear direction, but the details are unspecified. Teams are able to try a bunch of things and fail fast, and hold themselves accountable and measure themselves rigorously.
We find that smaller teams are faster…we try to build them in that sort of environment.
14. Customer service shouldn’t just be a department
Tony Hsieh, founder, Zappos, on the company’s induction programme:
It’s a four-week training program, in which we go over company history, the importance of customer service, the long-term vision of the company, our philosophy about company culture and then you’re actually on the phone for two weeks, taking calls from customers.
Again, this goes back to our belief that customer service shouldn’t just be a department; it should be the entire company.
15. Shaping good judgment
Mike Curtis, VP engineering, Airbnb:
We believe in shaping good judgment in individuals instead of imposing rules across the team.
16. Those who leave
Andy Dunn, founder, Bonobos
The most important people to the culture are those who leave. This is hard to say because it sounds mean: the people you fire are more important to your culture than the people you hire.
It’s a half-truth, as you have to hire people who are an outstanding, but it’s an important half-truth because the best way to protect the environment is to recognize where you have erred and course correct.
You reveal that culture as a by-product of who stays and who goes, and to effectively “experiment” your way into what your culture is by learning who fits and who doesn’t – and by learning what precisely it is they are fitting into.
17. The CEO is the CCO
Scott Berkun, author:
Every CEO is in fact a Chief Cultural Officer. The terrifying thing is it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is.