A Framework For Designing Sustainable Cultures
Establishing purpose requires shared passion around a problem an organization is solving
In my piece Designing Culture that Builds Great Products, I mostly explored the importance of culture to designing great products. Since then I’ve been thinking about ‘the how’.
“For the next 5 years, the biggest problem companies face is culture.” John Maeda
Experiencing Burning Man and seeing the amazing culture they’ve built made me think about deconstructing it. What did they do so well? Why? And how does it impact culture? Perhaps it can be reverse-engineered. There could be a way organizations can intentionally design their culture — one that aligns with their value proposition.
I believe there are 5 tenets for designing culture:
Establishing “Purpose” in Culture
Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion. — Brian Chesky
Establishing purpose requires shared passion. It’s passion around a problem an organization is solving. In order to articulate your culture the two must be closely intertwined.
Purpose Aligns With Passion
The next generation of employees don’t care about material things. Calport Newport points out that follow your passion is a catchphrase that’s only gotten going over the last 20 years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, a tool that shows how prominently a given phrase appears in English print over any period of time. You can see that from 1985 it shows our generation caring more about having careers that fulfill their lives. The same Ngram viewer shows that the phrase “a secure career” has gone out of style, just as the phrase “a fulfilling career” has gotten hot. We’re more about following passion and having fulfilling careers. The inability to align any organization with purpose could be detrimental because purpose aligns with passion.
Purpose Defines Behaviour
One fundamentally important reason purpose is absolutely critical is because it helps define the behavior you’d want in your organization. If the purpose is to converse then the clear and expected behavior would be open and inclusive. This implies that purpose can help to measure or even guage the culture in your organization because it frames behavior towards it.
Purpose As Foundation
I’d like to use Pinterest as an example. They help people start/do things. Culture is greatly influenced by people and so a company like Pinterest could hire individuals who love doing the type of things that Pinterest helps their users do. Being talented at your craft — development, design, business, support is a baseline. Having people who are passionate about doing things that align with a company’s purpose is an important factor in its culture.
A shared sense of purpose cultivates a culture that facilitates building the right product in the best ways. The employees who build the product are passionate about doing things and as such will build the best possible product to help others with their projects.
The point is that the best cultures have purpose as an underlying factor to their success. It makes culture resilient, a mandatory characteristic for a long-lasting culture. It's important to ask: what's "the purpose" of our organization?
Establishing “Ownership” of Culture
Establishing ownership of culture is a powerful model for lasting cultures. Culture isn’t about rules, it’s constantly being rebuilt by the actions of those who are passionate about it. If you’re designing culture, allowing people to actively contribute to its evolution almost guarantees its continued existence.
I’ve heard of Burning Man for years and experienced it for the first time in 2014. It’s here I got to see and experience one of the purest implementations of ownership where people actively contribute to the culture. Take a minute and read, with this article as context, The 10 Principles of Burning Man. It is almost purposely designed with precision to make shared “ownership” one of the core tenets of their culture.
At Neo, ownership is a core trait of the company’s culture. Neo hires entrepreneurial-type generalists. As a result, they can freely allow individuals to run with ideas. A “don’t seek permission, only advice” type of culture. For example, if someone wants to take up SEO for the company as their internal project, the usual response is, “make it happen” and Neo facilitates.
Another interesting way of encouraging ownership is by being radically transparent. I’ve been back and forth about which is the result of the other. Neo shares the status of the business, profits, losses, everything. If there’s something you don’t know, they’ll share, just ask. As a result, it allows anyone on the team to step up and take on a task that could help the company. Buffer is another great example of transparency.
It’s not a matter of only providing the environment to own things but also about people wanting to. Ownership facilitates that. It's important to ask: how do employees, participants, or members actively contribute to our culture?
Being “Diverse” To Encourage Friction
Attitude or mentality isn’t culture. Collective behavior is. Many startups hire on the premise of ‘culture fit’ which is arguably a misunderstood approach to designing it. For a culture to truly evolve, there must be positive friction. Without diversity of some sort, it becomes one-dimensional.
As an example, if a company consists of males only then that’s most likely going to be the type of culture that exists — extreme example but you get the point.
Look at Burning Man where the most radical form of diversity is encouraged (and without compromise, I might add). If you ask 65k individuals to truly express themselves then it will create diversity — men in skirts, topless women, insane costumes. It creates friction. This is good. It results in an ever-evolving culture that ensures the experience is never the same.
The application of diversity depends on the intention of the culture. At TheGlint, guests at salons are diverse in background because we think gatherings can often be one-dimensional. When we have poets, entrepreneurs, designers, artists, philosophers, and others in the same room, this application of diversity adds immensely to our culture of conversation. It's important to ask: how can diversity facilitate the intention of our culture?
Being “Protective” Of The Culture
Culture is forever, the way evolution is.
Forever is great but easier said than done. How does one make culture “forever?” It will take years, decades to build a culture but it’ll take much less time to fuck everything up.
As an example, at Burning Man 2014, one of the Sound Camps released their DJ lineup more than one week ahead of the actual event. As a result, it got picked up by EDM magazines and attracted ravers. Ravers at Burning Man isn’t bad, we all rave at one point or another. However, thousands of individuals coming with zero understanding of what Burning Man’s purpose or any idea of its principles can have a destructive effect on the existing culture.
Burning Man forgave the Sound Camp but now has official consequences in place for breaking this rule. That’s a subtle way of being protective of what they’ve built.
Subtlety in exercising protection of culture is important because it’s got to be organic. Normally there are no rules or parameters but since the culture is intentionally being designed for a specific outcome, there must be guidance to ensure consistency. The more consistent, the more defined a culture becomes towards its intention.
Another great example is the letter by CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, to employees titled Don’t Fuck Up the Culture that he later published on Medium. His approach is incredibly inspiring because he subtly protects the culture by bringing it to the attention of the company. In doing so, he’s fostering ownership of their culture. He puts the responsibility squarely on everyone to not fuck it up. No policies, rules, or governance, just ownership.
At Neo, once a month there’s company retro where we talk about what’s good, what’s bad, and what can be improved. This is an essential part of protecting culture and allowing everyone to contribute not only to protecting it but also owning it. It's important to ask: how do we respond to threats against our culture?
In The End, It’s about “Balance”
It is too intricate of a system influenced by human behavior to ever be complete.
With these proposed tenets for designing a sustainable culture, it turns out too much of one thing is good for nothing. There cannot be too much emphasis on one over the other otherwise it breeds a one-dimensional culture. For instance, too much ownership by employees without being protective of the culture can break away from the intention. On the other hand, being too protective means that you’re really implementing laws and rules, not facilitating a culture.
In the past at TheGlint, we haven’t established ownership of the culture as much as we have the common why. Today, we explore ownership by enabling creatives and guests to have their own impact in an organic way. The point here is that everything doesn’t have to be figured out at once, just implemented with timing and balance.
Balancing these tenets weaves them together in a way that makes the culture resilient and that ultimately makes it sustainable. It's important to ask: what is the ideal balance of these tenets that suit my organization?
We make the hive, they bring the honey. We create just enough order so that this spontaneous, naturally occurring process called culture, which is born of the interactions of people, that no one can plan, and that no one can control, will begin to happen. - Larry Harvey
Every culture is different whether it be Burning Man or Airbnb’s. It depends on the desired outcome and how these tenets are implemented to create just enough order.