When in Rome…

Whenever we’ve had the opportunity to visit a new place, we get a glimpse of the culture of the place when we’re out and about. There’s a certain rhythm to how things are done – the way people drive, the way pedestrians walk, and so on.

Even if we don’t understand why, it is generally helpful to adapt quickly to the norms of the new place (at the very least, it helps avoid stares or honks :)). As a species, we’re wonderful at mimicking each other. So, it isn’t hard to follow “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – but, it does make me marvel at how easily norms carry over to a new visitor.

On the one hand, it reminds me of the idea that we must fit in before we stand out. In new cultures, it is better to show you’re capable of being an insider before attempting to inspire change (assuming it is necessary).

On the other, it brings to the light the power of culture in any organization. When new members of the organization arrive, they look around to understand how things are done.

The big question, then, is – in our families/teams/companies/neighborhoods, what will they see?

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.

Unlimited vacation perks and game theory

There have been a few news articles going after perks like “unlimited vacation.” The trouble with these articles is that they typically go after these perks quoting folks who run workplaces without these policies and thus tell you that these perks are dangerous. There’s an inherent skin-in-the-game problem there.

A better approach might be to examine such perks from the lens of game theory. The challenge with unlimited vacations is that one’s natural behavior is to want to take a little less vacation than their neighbor – i.e., not enough to be the slacker on the team. This means the natural equilibrium point is to reduce the number of vacation days to zero.

This problem can be easily solved by shifting the equilibrium. For example, companies like Hubspot and LinkedIn (where I work) either mandate 2 weeks of vacation or shut down entirely for 2 weeks in the year. Another way to do this would be to have negative incentives below a certain threshold – e.g. maybe you get some benefit deducted if you don’t take 3 weeks off.

Company culture goes a long way in creating equilibrium points as well. Smart employers understand that breaks result in more productivity. And, cultures can create norms that make it unacceptable to not take these breaks.

Perks aren’t culture – their use is dictated by culture. They are rarely good or bad by themselves. Ping Pong tables, for example, can actually be pretty great if you use them every once in a while to blow off some steam with a teammate.

So, if perks aren’t being used as intended, it is better to evaluate the equilibrium created by the culture and incentives in place. And, game theory is our friend.

(Inspired by the game theory chapter on “Algorithms to Live By” – a very good book :-))

Policies and principles

As we learn to manage ourselves, we often start by setting policies. Policies are iron clad rules that help us achieve certain objectives. Examples of policies are –

1. I will always go to the gym first thing in the morning
2. I will never check email on Saturdays
3. I only eat sweets on Sundays

Of course, these policies are just ways to live by certain principles. For example, the principles behind these 3 rules might be –

1. I care a lot about exercise and would like to make sure I get it done
2. I need to feel relaxed during the weekend
3. I care about the sugar levels in my blood and would like to make sure I keep them low

Now, these principles provide us degrees of freedom. For example, you might be okay checking your email on a Saturday as long as you are feeling relaxed. And, those degrees of freedom enable us to be more effective by applying these principles based on the context.

Managing by policy is an amateur’s game. This is just as applicable whether we’re managing ourselves or an organization.

This, in turn, is exactly why culture matters – both in organizations and individuals. Google’s employees are not held back from discussing confidential information from their company’s weekly all hands because of a policy. Rather, it is their commitment to the culture. Great cultures are important because they enable leaders to focus on principles rather than policy.

For short term wins, policies can work great. However, if you are in it for the long term, principles are the way to go.

Beavers and rabbits

In 1946, members of the Argentinian navy released 10 beavers to enrich the ecosystem and perhaps kick start the fur trade. Now, beavers have wrecked havoc in Argentina for decades. Unlike trees in North America, trees in South America die when beavers sink their teeth into them. Without a natural predator, they are now a hundred thousand strong. And, Argentina has declared a war on beavers

Australia faced a similar problem when 6 rabbits were introduced for hunting. Rabbits turned out to be an invasive species in Australia.

The obvious lesson here is to beware messing with the delicate balance in nature. There are two other less obvious ones.

First, small things have the ability to mess with the balance in an ecosystem. Nice organizational cultures have been destroyed by a few bad hires. Introduce one person who enjoys politicking more than doing the work and you might not notice much change. However, bring a few and it’ll soon affect the ecosystem.

On the flip side, you might also find yourself in environments where you are the invasive species. In an environment that thrives on the fact nobody asks questions, asking questions might result in the environment rejecting you.

Pay attention to the environment. Some adapt, others don’t. And, while some will work well for you, others won’t. Make sure you choose. And, once you make your choice, pay attention to the changes it undergoes. A change in your environment is sure to have an impact on your life and happiness.

Purpose and appreciation

Building a culture is hard. This is so because of two reasons. First, there seem to be so many other things that need to get done. And, second, it isn’t clear what you should focus on. There seem to be way too many factors that go into building a culture anyway. While both are true, we all know that there are ways to simplify seemingly complex problems. And, my attempt at simplifying culture building is to simply focus on purpose and appreciation.

Dan Pink’s excellent book, Drive, beautifully synthesized human motivation to 3 ideas – autonomy, mastery and purpose. I’ve begun to believe that it is missing a fourth – appreciation. We care about being appreciated. A lot. There’s a saying that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. And, I’d hazard a guess that the managers who people want to leave are often managers who don’t appreciate what their people do.

So, why leave out autonomy and mastery in culture building? As an organization grows, I think it is hard to emphasize autonomy and mastery. Autonomy can get in the way of process. And, process becomes critical as we grow to ensure a consistent experience to customers. Balancing between autonomy and process isn’t easy and is a constant struggle for mature organizations. So, I think it is something that needs to be solved for by managers and leaders at an individual team level.

As far as mastery goes, I think it makes sense in some contexts and doesn’t in others. For example, companies work hard to allow for internal movement so people don’t feel stuck in certain careers. Certain career paths may be viewed as stepping stones to others. Again, I think of mastery as something we work on a manager and team level. In some teams, mastering the craft should be the key focus. And, in others, it should all be about gaining relevant skills and moving onto do other things.

My gut says that if we can focus on purpose and appreciation in our organizations and homes, we’ll be able to solve for most of the problems that culture helps solve. And, while more organizations are attempting to do better with appreciation, most are a long way away from improving the sense of purpose.

Foundations of culture – The 200 words project

When he visited Jeff Bezos’ investment office, venture capitalist Bryce Roberts noticed a piece of furniture that seemed out of place – a table with a wooden door atop some legs jerry rigged together. The “door desk,” he was told, was a symbol of the early frugality Amazon embraced early on which, in turn, was a key part of Amazon’s culture.

Image Source

On reading the story behind the compliance crisis HR services company Zenefits faced a few months back, Bryce shared an anecdote that caught his attention. Zenefits founder Conrad Parker made a small decision early on – he created a macro to bypass the systems created to certify that someone had completed the required training to sell insurance in the state of California. He believed that 52 hours was too long to spend in training.

This act resulted in serious compliance issues that threatened to wreck the company. Each article about the Zenefits crisis showed glimpses of the tone the macro set within the company. Ever since, a lot of work has gone in to tear out the old foundation in hopes of saving the company.

Like cement, the cultural foundation for new projects/companies/teams sets early. Mindful, we must be…

These small, seemingly insignificant, early decisions to save money by building ramshackled desks or building tools to cheat the system set the foundation for company culture that everything after gets built upon. – Bryce Roberts

Source and thanks to: Bryce’s blog post – “When Culture Sets