Two Things to Consider When Creating Culture from Scratch
Yesterday I was a guest at Lightspeed Ventures. They asked me to come hold office hours for the startups in their summer fellowship program to help these early stage companies learn how to think about culture and inclusion from the beginning. It was really fun to get to chat with each of the teams, to hear about the problems they were solving, and to provide a little perspective that might save them some pain down the line.
What was interesting is that, across all different team sizes and all different products and markets, the same themes kept coming up in the conversations I had with these companies. As they were thinking about moving beyond their founding team and bringing on part and full time folks to accelerate their growth, they were all wondering about how they might get their culture to gel and stick.
There are a lot of ways to think about and approach culture, but the definition that is my favorite is that “culture is what happens when you’re not in the room.” That is, as your company grows, you're no longer in every conversation and interaction. Culture is the the sum of the examples you set, the incentives you create, and the behaviors you reward: it’s what nudges people to act in ways you’d be proud of.
I encouraged these founding teams to think about the ways they interact with one another and what they like about that and to start to concretize those qualities and characteristics. Focusing on these habits, behaviors, and values will start to teach you what your culture is already and help you decide what you’d like it to be.
One founder said a successful entrepreneur had spoken to the group and told them he was a culture nerd and that at his company every new employee gets a watermelon. The founders in front of me seemed confused what lesson to take away. A surface level discussion of culture tends to revolve around foosball tables and nap pods, or in this case, watermelons. The question is: what does the foosball table represent? A love of play? Make sure you’ve got other options for folks who prefer art or physical activity. Do the nap pods represent self care, or do they mean you’re expected to work late nights? What does the watermelon represent? (Unfortunately I am not sure what the answer is.)
The other thing that I discussed a lot with these founding teams in the context of culture seemed to surprise them: decision making. The way decisions get made and communicated has a huge impact on your culture. Does everything roll up to the top for approval? Do decisions come top down? Or are they decentralized? Do you get a chance to give input when a decision is being considered? How do you know when a decision has been made? Creating some structure around how your team approaches decision making can both make you smarter and save you pain down the line.
The framework I shared with the entrepreneurs I met with is MOCHA, a structure in which for each decision you have a Manager, Owner, Consultant(s), Helper(s), and Approver. The important thing about MOCHA is that you have predefined roles that people play in decision making. So any time you’re gearing up to make a big decision, you know it’s time to assign people to the various roles you need in order to make it. That type of structure really helps you to not leave anyone out who should be involved.
What I said to the teams is that it’s less important that you use MOCHA specifically and more important that you understand what roles are required in order to make a good decision in your company. For example, at Code2040, we added another role to the framework: Informer (so we had MOCHIA). We noticed that even when we were making good decisions with effective input, we weren’t doing a great job of communicating them out to the rest of the team in a timely manner. So we added the role of Informer, a person whose job it was to tell interested parties about the decision once it had been made. (Note: one person can play multiple roles, so the O might be the I as well, etc.)
It’s amazing what a huge impact effective or ineffective decision making has on culture, and how decisions are made is one of the biggest shifts that occurs when a company grows beyond its founders.
The final thing I urged teams to think about was communication norms. What conversations can happen on Slack or via email or chat? What requires someone to pick up the phone? Schedule a meeting? These norms have big culture impacts because they often dictate who gets heard.
Culture is typically considered an elusive thing, hard to define or manage. And it can be a challenge for sure. But it doesn’t have to be a mystery. Norms, behaviors, and processes, particularly around decision making and communication, all have huge impact on how your culture develops. Hopefully the teams I met with will develop great cultures alongside great products and services!