There is Never a Bad Time to (Re)Define Your Culture

I have been thinking a lot recently about company culture and the intentionality for which it should be built.  @@Many start-ups begin their business with a strong intention to get a product to market quickly but fail to prioritize the necessary endurance that only the right company culture can sustain.@@  There is never a bad time to work on organizational culture but it takes on different forms at different stages of company development. 

The Start:  The slate is clean when starting your business and you can craft a company culture with intention.  I am a big fan of setting Guiding Principles early.  Amazon is probably one of the best companies that has set principles and lived them.  New employees spend a disproportionate amount of time getting steeped in the Company’s guiding principles before they even start producing as an employee.  A common language and understanding gets established and it acts as a filter for decision-making.  There is no magic in establishing these principles.  They can be done as a small founding group, inspired by other companies or your own sets of values. The most important point here is they need to be translated into action.  People should be able to read your guiding principles and see those represented in your business.

The Awkward Teenage Years:  The hardest time to intentionally set culture is when your product or service has launched and you are still trying to find product market fit and build the velocity to break out in the market.  If you didn’t set and live your guiding principles early, establishing them now often feels like a distraction for the team and too contrived.  Usually at this point, there is more internal conflict than anyone wants and a bunch of band-aid culture solutions (team lunches, a ball game, a nerf gun war, etc.) get implemented in the hopes of improving morale.  What needs to happen at this stage is a “reset” and that should involve getting the management team off-site for a day or two specifically to clear conflict, set guiding principles as a group, and discus specifically how they will be lived in all facets of the business.  It is hard because it can feel like one step backward, but it’s necessary.

High Growth and Maturity:  As companies develop, a culture gets created whether it was the one the CEO/Founder intended or not.  I have found that other than doing an intentional culture reset (which is super hard for companies at this stage) that the number one positive culture impact is:  Focus.  Companies that have more resources (e.g. capital to invest) often undermine their culture due to a lack of focus which creates confusion in a Company.    What are we doing? Who do we serve?  What do we need to stop doing?  What are people working on?  Lack of focus is the open door for negative culture behaviors to rise.  Aligning people and priorities to a clear purpose is everything at this point.  The CEO must show his/her discipline and conviction to not get distracted.  Positive culture has a way of stabilizing when people see how their effort is contributing to the greater goal.  Once that is established, it is much easier to do a broader reset with guiding principles if those were not formally in place.

Culture tends to take a backseat when there is existential urgency or laziness.   But intentional culture design allows more energy to be spent on bringing an innovation to the world and that is what we’re here to spend as much time doing as possible.