From the MVP Conference 2015, held May 18th – 19th in Rosslyn, VA.
This guest post was written by Anitha Pai. Anitha is the co-founder of Tokabee, an education startup that delivers cultural experiences for children to learn about the world. Prior to founding Tokabee, Anitha worked on a range of international development issues including financial literacy programing for the urban poor in India, primary school education programs in the Middle East and Africa, and cross-cultural exchanges in the US.
Creating and sustaining great company culture is something every organization should be thinking and talking about. As a critical factor for success, ignoring it just isn’t an option. I’ve worked for organizations with a variety of missions and organizational structures; I’ve witnessed some that have gotten it right and others that have struggled to inspire and guide employees to engage in the greater good.
At CultureCamp DC, I wanted to learn about how to develop great company vibes, regardless of an organization’s purpose. Hosted at the OpenGovHub offices on April 29, 2015, CultureCamp DC brought together a group of culture enthusiasts from nonprofits, government, consulting, startups and others to talk about organizational culture. Participants pitched and led session topics based on their interests and experiences, rather than their areas of expertise. The topics ranged from “documenting culture” and “introducing security in an open culture” to “creating culture change from the bottom-up.”
Using the unconference format, the day’s schedule was self-led and the sessions flowed. In each of the sessions I attended, conversations looped and pivoted in response to ideas from the group. While we started chatting in one session about struggles with a “culture of sacrifice” in one nonprofit, attendees then shared ideas in recruiting for “culture fit” and later we moved to real-life examples of group norming. Forget the stale presentation or discussions where one or two people dominate the conversation, this conference observed the rule of two feet. If you weren’t learning or engaged in the conversation, then you moved to a place that could make it happen.
With more than 20 sessions, participants presented challenges, proven techniques, and even games around creating collaborative culture. To support the participatory nature of the event, we embraced the four key principles of an unconference: 1) Whoever comes are the right people; 2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; 3) Whenever it starts is the right time; 4) When it’s over, well, it’s over.
Here are my top 3 takeaways from CultureCamp DC.
- What is organizational culture? We’ve all heard success stories from companies that are consistently voted the best places to work, but I wanted to learn more about how people were identifying and fostering collaborative and open culture.
To start, a few themes emerged from the sessions that I found helpful for defining the term. Organizational culture is an ongoing conversation that reflects the values and behaviors of the people within an organization. It might be directed by the company’s founder or senior leadership team, but it is much more powerful when it is crafted from the collective experience.
Culture expresses itself among individual employees and teams, and it can generate a number of subcultures within a large company. A company’s culture should be aligned with its core purpose. It is sometimes codified through a formal document or put up as wall décor; yet, its potency is in the informal way that the culture is lived across the organization.
- How can culture change? Often times, we’re not at the helm of the organization and the place we work has been around for a lot longer than we have. Under these circumstances, I was curious about how an individual can initiate a shift in culture, especially when key members of leadership are not onboard or are unaware of the need for change. It’s a situation that I and others around the table had found ourselves in at different points in our career.
We talked about the tactile things that we can do to turn things around. While there is no magic bullet, presenting research or internal data can be an effective way to initiate the conversation about culture change. Using studies that point to the financial benefit of positive work culture might be one way to get decision-makers committed.
Collecting data within the organization through employee satisfaction surveys can be another way to expose issues and open up dialogue beyond the grumbling at the water cooler. If it’s done in a manner that responds to the perspective, incentives, and habits of those who are resistant to change, then it can create allies and encourage collaboration while creating a more positive work culture.
- What should leaders do to cultivate great culture? As the co-founder of an education start-up, I wanted to learn the how-tos of creating and cultivating a great work culture during our company’s initial phases. I was curious about how to get it right with our team, so that we could avoid the pitfalls that others have experienced in creating an open, collaborative and mission-driven culture.
As organizations grow and employees transition, so does organizational culture. If you’re lucky enough to be in the initial stages of a company, start the conversation early and encourage continuous dialogue so that the culture reflects the company’s inevitable evolution. When there is a shift in culture, it is useful to make it explicit to avoid confusion or disengagement.
Employees appreciate authenticity and vulnerability from leaders. Leaders aren’t expected to get it right every time, but by asking questions and creating opportunities for continuous feedback and engagement from all levels in the organization, leaders can foster an environment of great culture.
First, it bears mentioning that this is a key challenge of starting a new business. If you can’t find interviewees to talk to, you won’t be able to find customers to sell to either. Spend some time to get this right, because it’s not a problem that simply disappears after you validate your market.
There are two main approaches to doing customer interviews. Pick an approach depending on whether you are trying to optimize for calendar time or clock time.
Calendar time is the elapsed time between beginning and end of a task. Clock time is the person-hours spent on a task.
Identify Your Time Constraint
If you are working full time and you have savings to last you a month, you’ll want to optimize for calendar time. If you’re working on a side project in your limited free hours between work, sleep, and family time, you’ll want to get as many interviews as possible done per hour of clock time, and ignore the time spent waiting for responses.
For Calendar Time
If you are trying to maximize the number of interviews you can conduct before a deadline, it may take more of your clock time. But you will get more responses in fewer days if you go to where your customers are and try to talk to them. Get out on the street with a clipboard and find people who look like your target customer. Ask them if they would mind helping you with a research project by answering a few questions. If your target customers aren’t out on the street, figure out where you can find them and go there. Product for restaurant owners? Go restaurant to restaurant and ask for the manager— just don’t do it during mealtimes. Product for dentists offices? Time for an office visit— followed by 10 more.
The advantage of that approach is that you can you can approach many potential interviewees in a short period of time. Even if your success rate of interview agreement is lower, you will get more interviews in a few hours of being where your customers are than you would in a day of sending warm email introductions. Increasing the number at the top of the funnel pays dividends.
For Clock Time
If calendar time isn’t an issue, but your clock time is scarce (e.g. you’re working full-time), then you need an approach to maximize the number of interviews you can secure and conduct per hour of your time. The key here is to get warm introductions from people you know to people that you don’t know but who fit your customer profile.
Find 2nd-degree connections on LinkedIn who fit your target persona. Ask friends to reshare a message on Facebook: “I’m looking to talk to busy professionals who are health-conscious and want to cook at home but don’t have time to arrange it.” The potential interviewee is much more likely to take your call because the request comes from someone they know and trust. We’re more likely to help a friend of a friend than some random person on the street.
Questions about using this approach? Suggestions for others doing customer development? Comment below or schedule a free session for 1-on-1 help during office hours.
Culture: the word comes directly from the Latin cultura, for ‘growing, cultivation’. So why do we insist on talking about designing or building company culture as if it were an architectural achievement?
You can’t build culture, but you can grow it. The social expression of culture holds well to the analogy of growing plants. There are some things you can do to help it along, and you can have a good deal of influence on the direction of a culture, as long as you recognize that the culture itself will grow, change, or die, whether you want it to or not.
And it’s a lot easier to grow a culture from scratch than to change an existing one to fit your vision.
When you’re growing a culture from scratch, you can use a scaffolding, like core values, to act as a trellis for your growing culture. With careful cultivation, your culture can thrive, while resembling something of the vision you set out with.
When you’re changing culture, think of it as taking a fully grown plant and shaping it, slowly, into your vision of the culture. You change an existing culture by removing elements that don’t belong, and training the ones that are close to fit.
It’s less like growing climbing vines on an arbor of your design, and more like training bonsai by wiring and pruning.
You can’t just set out a trellis and expect a tree to climb it. You have to prune, trim, and tie branches with wire to encourage them to grow in the direction of your vision.
A friend of mine shared a talk by Jack Conte, of Pomplamoose at XOXO with me (thanks, Harrison!) and I was struck by how much of his talk about being a content creator/entrepreneur is applicable to entrepreneurship more broadly.
Jack talks about the challenge of putting out content, and how when you wait longer, you feel the need to put out better content to justify the wait. The self-editor prevents us from putting out work that might not be perfect, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
Many product startups have the same problem. We don’t want to launch until it’s ready, but we can always come up with a reason that it’s not ready yet.
The Money Function
Jack also talked about what comes after creating good work. In order to be able to keep making music (and music videos), you have to solve for the function f:
In other words, what function or system takes music as an input and returns money. It used to be CDs, then it was YouTube, now maybe it’s touring. But the interesting part for non-musician entrepreneurs comes when we look at it more broadly:
And yes, that includes:
In the lean startup community, we talk a lot about market risk – the risk of building something that no one wants – but Jack Conte’s distillation of that concept to a simple formula is an elegant framing of the problem.
Solving this formula is half the job. Creating great works of art – or building great products – is the other half, not the whole job. Without both halves, you don’t get to keep doing the work.
It’s not a problem if you want to do something once, but if you want to keep doing it, you have to figure out how to make enough money to keep it (and you) going.