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Here is how Unleash builds an awesome, sustainable company culture [+5 Tips]

Challenge 

When we started Unleash, we decided to build a remote-first company. As we have grown through this year, we have experienced that growing a distributed company isn’t easy. 

Bringing on specialized fields such as marketing, customer success, and community management adds even more challenges to the picture. 

How do we ensure we are easily aligned to move in the right direction? How do we ensure everyone is focusing on the most important thing for the company at any time? 

As a startup, we are able to move and adapt quickly. In a distributed company, we do not have the benefit of seeing each other in the company on a daily basis. When onboarding new members we need to make sure they quickly come up to speed on how “we are doing things at Unleash”; or quickly get included in the Unleash company culture. 

This is also why we did start to actively work with our company culture as one of our first focus areas when we founded Unleash. Having an active approach to what we would like our company culture to be like, would allow us to form and develop our culture into what we would like it to be. 

What we have learned so far is that the more relevant and “hands-on” we are able to describe our culture, the quicker everyone adapts and aligns towards the same behavior. One element we recently added, and that we particularly believe in, is defining guiding principles that supports our company values. 

Values are a compass to your North Star

Cultural Expression and Cultural contents

When we started working with company culture, our focus was how our “culture expressions” interact with our “cultural content”. 

I have experienced firsthand that having this model in the back of my mind makes the work so much easier. This simple model allows me to break down an abstract “culture” into something much more hands-on and observable. 

Examples of cultural expressions are: what we can observe, what we talk about, the stories we tell to each other, and how we treat each other. 

One example that I’m particularly proud of here in Unleash, is experiencing the mutual respect between the different parts of our team. Developers share openly their admiration for sales, whilst sales cheer for the developer team when they demo the new feature our sales rep is waiting for. 

The cultural content is abstract, such as our values or the reality we believe in. Values are important as they provide inspiration for what is important to us. They will always act as our North Star. One key observation is the fact that values are stated as nouns, and nouns do not drive our expected behavior. 

Values are more abstract and serve as an ideal for the company culture. So the challenge with this is that they may be hard to apply in our daily decision-making. 

For example, one of our values is “Speed”, when Speed may contain many different meanings. Speed might mean that we decide quickly. It may mean that we are okay to lower quality for speed (which of course isn’t the case). 

So we need a concrete and granular way to act on our values and prevent misinterpreting them.

Guiding principles put your values to action

Principles, on the other hand, are structured around verbs. This means they can be used directly to drive our expected behavior. When we started defining principles, we included a description on each one of them, in order to clarify their meaning and intention.

Let’s take another look at our value “Speed”, as well as some of the principles we have chosen for “Speed”. The first principle is Prioritize fast feedback. This principle was designed to support us in making fast decisions when we have more than one competing alternative. 

Because we often operate in an unknown territory, we believe that feedback is crucial to validate and adjust the course. This takes us to another principle now for the value “Experimental”: Ship it”. 

The intent behind this principle is to show that we seek progress over perfection. “Ship it” refers to releasing software, something we would like to do in order to collect real user feedback. The feedback again will be utilized to improve Unleash even further, an improvement that happens based on an increased level of knowledge of the user’s actual needs. This principle may also support the value of “Speed”.

There is one obvious challenge with principles: there is a risk of over-indexing. In the framework of our principles, this is referred to as “Limit” or “Anti-pattern” for the principle. 

Going back to the principle of “Ship it”, one anti-pattern will be to jeopardize quality in order to “ship it”. This anti-pattern is a friendly reminder to the team that over-indexing on this particular principle will likely put us at risk of moving at high speed by removing quality. 

How guiding principles can transform a team

What do we expect to obtain from introducing guiding principles?

First, we expect to see alignment across teams and among employees. As a remote-first company, building a consistent company culture is hard. A lot of contexts is lost in translation due to not being in the same office. Being aligned on the intention and expectations behind our company values is key.

Second, through our guiding principles, we create a common vocabulary for the company. When in need to make decisions, we find that referring to the guiding principles helps simplify and therefore speed up decision-making.

Third, guiding principles help new employees become aligned and familiar with the company culture, helping ensure cultural consistency. This is because the guiding principles add relevant context to the values and help guide the new employees in the expected direction.

5 Tips for defining your own guiding principles

No company defines their guiding principles in quite the same way. Here’s how we established ours: 

  1. Keep your guidelines simple.
    It is better to get started than to get them perfect in the first round.
  2. Guidelines should help you live your purpose and values in everyday decisions.
    In other words, your guidelines should be relevant to what you actually experience every day.
  3. Guidelines should be edgy.
    This means your principles should not be easy to achieve. The guiding principles should support you in non-trivial decisions, but also stir excitement in your team.
  4. Guidelines should reinforce the behaviors you want.
  5. Guidelines should be explicit about the l anti-patterns you want to avoid.
    Over-indexing your guiding principles will usually get in the way of the results you want to achieve. Use anti-patterns to set boundaries around your principles. 

   

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