It doesn’t take a genius to realize that it’s going to take more than a beer keg and an in-house masseuse to drive sustained performance of your startup.
Beyond the perks and window dressing that business leaders adorn their exposed-brick workspaces with, what can be done to solidify certain ways of working that guide behavior to tangibly drive the results you’re looking for?
Most articles out there about startup culture focus on some of the very important basic foundations that help align people in organizations: Creating a clear and compelling vision that creates a fire in peoples’ bellies about what you’re trying to accomplish. Articulating an intentional strategy where every individual can clearly see how their day-to-day behaviors support the bigger picture. Creating a non-negotiable set of core values that help members of the group understand what’s important and help guide decisions at the point closest to the issue.
Right now, some of you may be saying to yourselves, “We’ve done that. Now what?”
Well, let’s go there.
Beyond the Basics of Organizational Culture
First off, the concept of organizational culture is a bit different from many of the other concepts leaders navigate in business. This is because many of the concepts — particularly those having to do with the people side of things — focus on individuals. Compensation, performance management and employee engagement all focus on the person as an individual.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. All of these efforts serve a purpose in the organizational system. But, they are fundamentally different from culture at the outset, as culture, at its very core, is a collective concept.
If a group develops a culture; a certain way of doing things that guides the behavior of individuals in the group, it stems from the learnings of the collective: what works, what doesn’t, and what they should or shouldn’t do in the future for success. As the group learns what works, those ways of doing things become embedded in the collective understanding (the culture) and they begin to serve as a framework, or a recipe, for success that new members of the group learn when they join the organization.
The key here is these lessons about what works and what doesn’t are learned through collective experience. This takes time. As team members work together and learn what methods are most effective, they begin to solidify their practices based on these shared learnings.
So what can you, as a business leader of a startup — which, by nature is limited in shared experiences — do to help create opportunities for collective learning so these shared ways of working can begin to take shape more quickly?
Seven Tips for Shaping a Collective Startup Culture
The good news is; it’s going to happen anyway. As time goes on and people have shared experiences and learn a certain way of working, this will inevitably develop. But if you’re not the type of leader who wants to sit back and just wait for things to happen, here are a few tips to consider.
- Share learning through dialogue. Create opportunities for the group to come together face-to-face to share their learning around what’s working and what’s not working. Not only will this help to solidify shared methods of operating, but it will raise potential issues so that they may be corrected quickly.
- Let folks ride shotgun. The assumption that people may not be interested in or may not find value in conducting a ride-along with you on that next sales call or during your next financial review can be strong but it’s time to start questioning those beliefs. In my company, we’ve found tremendous gains just by being intentional about including others in activities that help them gain new skills and experience or just simply to increase their understanding of the organization from a different perspective.
- After action reviews. The US military is phenomenal at this. After every event, the unit involved comes together to conduct a formal process to share lessons learned so that changes can be made in processes for next time. These lessons are also captured via a comprehensive knowledge management system to allow others to gain value from the experience even if they weren’t a part of it.
- Look for opportunities to cross-pollinate in serving your customers. In my company, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to put different people together on project teams who aren’t used to working together. This helps them develop shared experiences across boundaries that serve to align the collective.
- Play together. Not all shared experiences need to be directly related to work. Seek out opportunities for members of the team to develop shared experiences outside of the office to help develop deeper, interpersonal bonds. This will also allow for the norming of expectations and attitudes relating to how group members interact.
- Memorialize best practices. As productive ways of working emerge, solidify them in the organization. Formalizing processes, systems and standard procedures help to drive consistency. There are plenty of best practices and platforms to help you do this effectively.
- Knowledge management. To help new members of the organization understand the “right” way to do things, effectively managing knowledge transfer can be core. Investing in an effective way to transfer knowledge may, in the least, save you some headaches and, at the most, save your business.
Perks are helpful for attracting talent, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that they will help create a deeper, collective understanding within your growing organization. And if you’ve already taken the first steps by defining a compelling vision, a set of non-negotiable core values, and a clearly aligned strategy, don’t stop there. Use these seven tips for creating a more meaningful, sustainable, culture for your startup.
Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D., is a Partner and Founder at gothamCulture.