Two ways we shape culture

Every person, team, and organization has a culture – a set of norms that governs how decisions are made. Since the quality of our execution is a by-product of our decisions, our culture becomes our strategy in the long run. “This is how we do things here” becomes “this is what people like us do.”

There are two ways we shape the culture of our own self, of our teams, and organizations every day –

1. People: The people we decide to hire, fire, or promote (whether via titles or via praise) are the single biggest lever we have to shape culture. While this appears to apply only to organizations and teams, the same holds true in our life. The people we choose to spend time with and, more importantly, the people we choose not to spend time with shape our personal culture.

2. Systems/Processes: The systems/processes we create do two things at once. First, they guide and incentivize certain kinds of behavior. And, second, when done well, they provide transparency into how decisions are made. A great resource planning process, for example, clearly lays out the decision criteria. In our personal life, habits are examples of the systems we create to guide behavior and help us make better decisions consistently.

I’ve spoken to many folks who ask questions about the cultures of the teams they’re considering joining. While this is a very important question, I think it is also important to remember that cultures aren’t set in stone. Instead, like wet clay, they can be shaped.

And, as we make daily decisions (whether consciously or unconsciously) on people and processes, we play our part in shaping it everyday.

Learning one line

There’s an old Indian story about a child who once told his teacher that he only learned one line during the few days the teacher was away. As all of his classmates claimed to have studied multiple chapters in this time, the teacher was upset about the child’s progress.

As he pressed the child further on this lack of progress, the child calmly explained that he’d put in maximum effort. As the conversation progressed, the teacher became increasingly infuriated, insulted the child’s intelligence, and slapped him.

The child stayed calm throughout this fit of anger.

Surprised at the child’s reaction, the teacher finally asked him what was the line he’d learnt.

“Don’t get angry.” – came the response.

On occasions when I think of this story, I’m reminded of the power of doing few things well.

And, of the fact that to learn and not to do is not to learn.

Reversing counter factuals

The easiest way to stimulate regret about situations that haven’t worked out as per plan (as yet) is to ask counter factual questions like – “What if I’d done x instead of y?”

As such questions are a guaranteed way to drive us crazy, a simple principle that I’ve found helpful is – for every such counter factual question about a situation that didn’t work out, examine a situation that did.

So, if we want to ask ourselves – “What if I’d been better at keeping my mouth shut at that meeting?” or “What if I’d bought Bitcoin in 2014?” :-) – we also ought to analyze their positive equivalents. When was a time we spoke up and made a really positive contribution? When was a time we made a good investment decision?

Applying this principle does three things at once. First, we get to learn from situations which worked in addition to situations that didn’t work. Second, we begin to appreciate the many times things have worked out well.

And, finally, we come to accept the fact that we did the best we could with what we knew. Now that we’ve learnt from it and know better, we can do better.

10 days of McDonalds

In response to a post on the challenges of research on food, James responded with an email recommending I read “The Diet Myth” by Prof Tim Spector. I’ve been working my way through this fascinating book in the past few weeks and one of the anecdotes in the book that’s stuck with me is an experiment he ran with Tom, his son, as a test subject. His son had a simple task – stick to a diet of McDonalds for 10 straight days so we can see its effects on your gut bacteria.

Through the course of the book, Prof Spector explains the key role gut bacteria plays in our health. There’s been a growing body of research on the subject too.

This post, however, isn’t about that (more on that later). This just looks at the effect the McDonalds diet on his son’s health and gut bacteria. Below are a couple of excerpts from Tom’s article in The Telegraph.

At first, my friends were quite supportive. They thought the idea was interesting and far-fetched, a mini Super Size Me diet. But by the eight or ninth day they started saying things like: “Are you sure your liver functions are intact? You look really quite jaundiced. You should really consider stopping.”

Straight after the experiment, I drove to the supermarket and got two big bags of salad. I ate them all. I was over the moon. And the test results were fascinating. I’d lost 1,400 bacterial species in my gut in just 10 days, which was extraordinary. After a week back on my normal student diet I’d recovered a bit but not completely. I still don’t know if I’ve completely restored the diversity of species to my gut.

I was the first person to look at the gut microbiome change on a McDonald’s diet, but I’m just one person. In terms of scientific reliability, that doesn’t score well. But we sent samples to three different laboratories, who tested in different ways, and my results did show really interesting trends across all three.

The experiment has definitely made me think about the bad food that I am eating. I used to work as a commis chef, so I can cook. I’m eating a lot more fruit and vegetables. 

By the end of the 10 day experiment, Tom had lost a devastating loss of microbiome diversity (1,400 less species in the gut), a loss of appetite, lethargy, and constipation.

The fascinating part to me is that all it took was 10 days..

Organization and Volume of Activity

As I’ve shared before, a useful way to generate leverage is to invest energy in activities that produce disproportionate return on investment. A reliable way to do that is to find causes and effects with exponential relationships.

One such cause and effect relationship is the effect of your level of organization when you are dealing with a high volume of activity and potential priorities.


The overhead of staying very organized isn’t worth it if you don’t have much to do. But, as your “to prioritize” queue gets longer, the overhead of organization pays itself forward many times over.

The lesson: Invest in developing a system for organization that works for us. The more we have on your plate, the more we’re going to be grateful for it.

PS: For those wanting to understand this further, the Operations theory behind this is fascinating. Waiting time in a queue = mean service time x utilization x variability. So, as your resource utilization/available time decreases, any variability in activity results in big delays in your ability to get to items later in the queue. When you are organized, however, you are able to get more done in less time => your utilization decreases => the queue wait time decreases exponentially.

3 lessons on recovering from sickness

3 lessons on recovering from sickness –

1. Sickness (the cold/cough/fever kind) is the universe’s way of saying – “take a break.” Take that break.

2. The quicker we can prioritize rest, the faster our recovery will be. Conversely, the more we push it away and attempt to “soldier on,” the longer and worse the effects will be.

3. The best way to deal with sickness is to avoid it altogether. And, the way to do that is to pay attention to signals from our bodies and to take that break before we are forced to.

In sickness and in life, it always helps to do the important things before we are forced to…

The Bezos co-founder split

Hypothetical: If Sergey Brin and Larry Page were to end their co-founder partnership, would journalists describe the settlement as Page giving Brin x% of Google / Brin feeling grateful to walk away with x% of Google?

And, yet, we see such statements in the news about Mackenzie-Jeff Bezos divorce (e.g. Forbes – “Jeff Bezos To Give MacKenzie 25% Of His Amazon Stake”). Many have responded sharing stories of how Mackenzie Bezos supported Amazon in the early days. But, that’s still beside the point.

Even if she wasn’t an early employee of Amazon (she was), even if she didn’t play a key support role in the early days (she did), she is no different from a co-founder of any venture that involved Jeff Bezos.

The only plausible explanation for this sort of coverage is that the reporters who frame this as Mackenzie walking away with 25% of Amazon don’t have partners or kids. If they did, they’d know that any and all success within the family is a the result of everyone pitching in – with the partner contributing the lion’s share.

I get that we love the hero’s (often solitary) journey. Life, however, is a team sport.