How we work with our company culture
When we started Unleash, one of the first areas I and my co-founder started to think about was what kind of culture we wanted for our company. Although not obvious for a small team of 4 people, we decided to spend time working with developing our culture towards a fantastic company that we would be proud about working for. The reason was that we acknowledged that it takes time to build a strong culture. A strong culture to us, is that it is consistent. We also acknowledge that it requires a systematic approach to be successful in building the strong culture that we desire to have. This is the approach that we have taken onto working with culture in our organization.
The first step was for us to break down “organizational culture”. In order to build and develop the culture, it was necessary to break it down to something tangible that we could use in our daily work. To be honest; being an engineer by training, I’ve initially thought that “culture” was rather, let’s say “unclear”. On wikipedia, the definition of culture is the following:
“Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business”
Two key words here are values and behavior. When breaking down values, I like the following breakdown.
Core value – This is a strong, and consistent belief or ideals on what is good/bad or wanted/not wanted behavior. And most importantly – and shared by the group. One obvious example to us is if it is okay to avoid sharing bad news with your manager. In our company, a core value is that we never speak bad about our competitors. We are happy to highlight why Unleash is superior, but we will never talk bad about any competitor.
Normes – this is what is considered appropriate or inappropriate within the group. Normes are often harder to agree upon within the group. Being on time for meetings is an obvious behavior that usually fits into the “norm” category. Being a minute or two late, is in most teams I’ve been part of okay. In some teams, being more than 5 might be considered really inappropriate.
Normal – are the behavior that the group accepts. Some of the behavior could be inappropriate, but the group still allows it to continue without any formal or informal sanction.
Taboo – this is behavior that the group does not tolerate. Stealing is an example that is clear.
What is important to us, is that a behavior may move from one category to another. One famous example, is the #MeToo movement that went viral in 2017. Through the awareness created, unacceptable behavior moved from “normal” and into “taboo” within weeks.
Our next step into understanding organizational culture was to divide the organizational culture into “cultural expressions” and “cultural content”.
The cultural expressions are the elements that are tangible, that we most easily observe by being close to, or included in our company. How do we behave towards one another (behavioral expressions)? What words do we use (verbal expressions)? Do we swear a lot? Do we talk disrespectfully to one another or about our competitors? As we grow into a larger company, the culture will also be expressed through structural elements. Examples may be who gets promoted (and why)?
The cultural expressions impact, and are being impacted by the cultural contents. Examples are our lived values. Here we put a lot of emphasis on “lived”. A cliche discussing organizational culture, are the jokes about the company values defined by senior management not being known by the employees. “Our corporate values are, uhhm, I think it might be trust or something….”. The lived values are the values actually being shared by the employees, although they might be the company values. Another element of the cultural content is the “Perceived reality”. These are the stories we share when we meet. The stories we tell to our new employees. Maybe an important customer we did win or a great new feature delivered just in time for a live customer demo.
Having this simple model and definitions in place – we were able to start approaching our company culture. The first step was that we defined our values. One huge benefit being the founder of a new company, is that there were no values defined – it was for us to decide. The values would also be close to who we are as persons. We the founders actually defined our company values within the first 3 months after we started the company. The values we decided for were:
Initially, this was it. Being a two person team – the need for investing our time in working further with the organizational culture would not bring us anywhere. To us this was about “speed” – we are eager to move the company forward.
Our next step developing our company culture was when we were a team of 10 employees. At this step we did spend a day together talking about our values, and we came up with examples of behavior that were good examples for “core value”, “norm” and “tabu” for each of the values. Examples that came up were “we trust our new employees to participate in customer meetings on their first day” (core value for “Trust”) and “requiring employees to prove themselves before being allowed to take on responsibilities” (taboo behavior for “trust”). Other examples were “all feedback (issues, customer feedback, support tickets etc.) is treated as a learning opportunity” is an example of core behavior on the value “Experimental” and “Never talk to a customer” is an example of a taboo behavior of the value “Experimental”.
Based upon this conversation – we came up with a description of each of our values. This is what the team came up with:
“We are one team – we trust each other by cheering for our successes and by always being there to support when needed. We are building a world-class team, and we demonstrate trust towards one-another by contributing to the team, and feel safe to ask for support when needed.
We trust our new-employees by inviting them to customer meetings or committing to master the first week.
We trust each other to always be honest, in a caring way, in our feedback to each other.”
“We want to move fast. Which means that we deliver quality products without striving for perfection before collecting feedback. We are constantly learning and adjusting our course accordingly.
We achieve this by making quick decisions, releasing often, and measuring the impact of our work.”
“We believe in transparency. We believe that open and honest communication with our users, customers, employees creates an atmosphere of collective collaboration which allows us to learn and make better decisions and reach our goals. This means that we share as much information as we can, about plans, code and ambitions, in order to build trust and credibility with our users.
We do this by sharing our roadmap, having excellent communication internally and externally, having an open source product, and publicly discussing product enhancements. It’s important that the information is available without becoming overwhelming.”
“We want to deliver a world-class, innovative product. To achieve that, we need to be willing to try out different ideas and to learn, evolve, and adapt. We come up with ideas, iterate on them, and then measure their outcomes.
Sometimes we fail, sometimes we don’t; but when we fail, we know exactly where. This allows us to reexamine our expectations and create a better product.”
“We want to have a culture where there is room to have fun and to enjoy ourselves, but we also recognize that there is a time to be serious.
If we don’t feel appreciated, trusted, and welcome, it’s harder to open up for fun. When people feel they can relax and laugh, it improves morale and boosts productivity.
Because we are a remote company, it’s important that we have an awareness of how this impacts us.
We allow ourselves to be ourselves and respect that we’re all different.”
The content we created together for our company values, are included in the offer letter that we send to all new hires. This allows us to start building awareness around our values, and what we mean by our values even before Day 1.
Being a remote first company – it is important to us that we get together on a regular basis as a company. Every Friday, the company gets together for our weekly “Happy hour”. This meeting started as our sprint demo, and is now evolving into more of a “Town hall”. The name “Happy hour” is of course intentional. We start every Happy hour dancing to this incredible great video “It’s Friday then Saturday Sunday What!!!”. Everyone dances (some more than others) in front of their camera, live in the Google meet. It’s hilarious, it brings the team together and the wibe is just fantastic.
During “Happy hour”, the development team does their weekly demo of what they have been working on the last week. Everyone is allowed and encouraged to ask questions to the demo. To us this fosters transparency and trust between the team members across sales and development. As the founder, one of the most memorable moments – was last week, when the development team admitted that this week there wasn’t really anything to demo. The reason was that they had spent a week to clean up technical debt in the product. To me this was a true moment of trust. We trust our developers to take the decision when they need to reduce their technical debt. We call this “slow down to speed up”.
Sales does also share one loss story every week. Win stories are accepted, but loss stories are more appreciated. This is a great opportunity for the development team members to ask detailed questions about what improvements can be made in the product that will make it easier for sales to win the next customer. These two demonstrations are important to us to live our value “transparency”.
Recently we have also started to measure if we, as a company, are able to live according to our values. This is a short survey sent out to all employees every month that asks the employees to rate (from 1-5) to what level do we actually live our values. The full value description is included in the survey. This makes sure that all employees are reminded of what our values are, as well as reminding them of what we mean by each value.
The company values are also included in the performance review conversation with all employees. Compared to large organizations, we are able to run a more light-weight performance review process. Our focus is what truly brings value to the employees and our company. How we as a company live our values is a natural part of this conversation.
These are a few examples of how we have decided to work with our company value. So – where to start? To us, “It starts with I”. As the co-founder and CEO of the company, how can I expect that the employees will behave according to our values, if I don’t. If I’m not true to the definition we have set for our values, there is no reason for anybody else to do this.
“It starts with I”