Many books and articles have been written on organizational culture and its importance. In the context of startups, how soon should a company define and insist on having a clear vision of its own culture? For us, at Tomorrow.io, the answer is clear: from day one. We’ve been deliberate about our culture from the day we started the company, and even though we failed at some points to implement our cultural vision or coherently describe it, we never stopped trying. Why? The way I see it, for Tomorrow.io, culture is the highest priority for three main reasons:
We Chose the Startup Life
We spend most of our lives interacting with our colleagues at work, and in an average week, we see them more than we see our friends or even family members. Many of us came to Tomorrow.io from large organizations or companies, and intentionally chose the roller coaster called startup life. It means that the experience, whether the technological challenge, excitement, small team dynamics, or whatnot, is extremely important for us. We want to enjoy the ride and to do that, we have to work hard and plan for it. Positive culture and experiences usually do not appear spontaneously.
A startup lives or dies based on the velocity and quality of execution. Ideas are 1-5% of the overall success factors. Moving fast is not easy for big companies, and it is also difficult for growing startups. Communication and synchronization between new employees and ‘veterans’ are only a small part of the issues. Usually, companies try to solve such communication problems with more meetings, 1:1s, etc. At this point, a small company can lose its edge: instead of rapid communication and fast decision making, we might meet over and over again, make decisions only occasionally, and not always implement all of our decisions. To make sure that our company is effective, we have to create a culture of fast decision making and instant implementation, and the learning curve has to be steep.
This is one of the most challenging pieces and one that we haven’t fully solved yet. No matter how much you leave the door open for ideas from any level, any company, including ours, can fall into the trap of quickly making management decisions and missing some people’s ideas. How can a company ensure an idea meritocracy while remaining as efficient and fast as a commando unit? Building the org chart right is important, but culture is what actually makes it work. If people are afraid to speak up and hierarchy kills ideas, our company will just be a mini corporate. Our goal is to be as close to an idea meritocracy as we can be.
So, How Do We Design and Implement Culture?
1) Define It.
First, we define our goals. What are we trying to achieve as a company? Then, we think of how the organization should behave to get there. This has helped us come up with the elements of our culture.
2) Create Supporting Infrastructure.
3) Get Buy-in and Communication.
Posting it on the wall or website is not enough to instill culture. Communicating culture and setting expectations should happen in the recruiting phase, and shaping culture should be collaborative to give people the opportunity to own it.
4) Measure It.
This is the most important point. We use one tool that links the high-level culture to measurable indicators. In our case, it’s our Tomorrow.io Teammate Indicators (CTI) – which we use in a variety of ways to make sure that we actually live by our culture:
a) Recruit and filter candidates using these indicators. The best thing that can happen in the interview process is a candidate understanding that he or she does or doesn’t relate to our culture.
b) Review individual performance using these indicators.
c) Use the indicators as a common language. For example, when providing feedback, we can say “You showed great ‘deliveriness’ by making an enormous effort to finish on time,” or “You saved us a lot of time and money by identifying this research, awesome ‘expertise’.”
d) Meetings are critical for instilling culture: we use the way we do meetings to demonstrate what your culture is and implement it. At Tomorrow.io, we have a meetings guide, which helps us communicate clearly how we want meetings to be run. We try to make sure that experts set the tone (idea meritocracy), and all voices are heard. For balance, we make sure that meetings end with clear decisions and action items, which are well tracked until completion.
5) Adapt. Companies grow and change over time. We adapt our culture and learn from past behavior to make sure that our culture grows with our company. All of the above is important, but the #1 factor to succeed in instilling a culture is, of course, leading by example and truly living by our own culture. Today’s individual contributors will be tomorrow’s managers, and today’s culture will transition to the next generation of the company.