Surprisingly, for a technology company, the focus is on communication, not systems. WordPress uses narrative approaches to sharing and learning: teams narrating their progress, challenges and success on internal blogs, with very little hierarchy to dictate who can view or contribute. Team structures are not defined by what you can and can’t do so much as tribes of similarly skilled and focussed individuals, who have permission to collaborate and contribute more widely. Priorities are set at a local level with little strategic planning or executive orders. There’s a focus on the work: it’s a culture founded on passion and commitment.
It’s a culture born of and suited to the Social Age, where agility counts.
Many organisations fall short: they resort to process and control, to systems and prevarication. For many, the focus is internal, based more on fortifying a power base than the work itself. Many organisations are unable to foster creativity and innovation as they are infrastructurally unable to create the spaces to learn: they lack permissive environments to make mistakes.
There’s a big difference between creating a culture for a startup and reforming an existing one. Both have their challenges.
Cultures are resistant to change, because change threatens what they are: culture is formed around shared values and purpose, around common goals. It’s right that they don’t flex too easily, or it would be all to easy to get change without consensus and consensus is what keeps a culture and community coherent.
With a startup, you’re writing the rules, creating your manifesto of hopes and asking people to align with your vision. At startup, it’s about promises made and expectations of future security. In established businesses, the promises are held up against past experience and often a lack of security: change means redundancy or risk. These are harder promises to make, standing under the spotlight of reality.
In established organisations, i favour a co-created and co-owned model of change, where culture is shaped and reformed through conversations at every level. This contrasts strongly with startup cultures, which are usually personality led and almost cult like in nature. When you’re starting a new business, it’s all about momentum, about getting energy into the system and gaining traction. So much of what you do and what you say is forward facing. With established organisations, the legacy can drag you down.
I’ve been playing around this year with a model of change for established organisations that is based around the tensions that build between individuals and the cultures that they inhabit. The CAIR Model explores how sub cultures form that may be coherent, aligned around core and common values, but that differ slightly from other sub cultures. Rifts open up between these coherent units causing failures of trust and integrity. It locates our interventions in these rifts: we have to build understanding and consensus through structured conversations rather than just broadcast aspirational statements of intent and optimism.
There’s a lot to be envious of with startup cultures: often young, typically unhindered by process and baggage, they seem fun and often effective. But they don’t always age well: there are transition points that are difficult to navigate. Scott talks about this journey for Autommatic who, with over fifty employees, start to implement formal structures. When we introduce teams, we introduce tribes: sub cultures with their own identity that have to stand up against and integrate into the broader organisational frame.
Much of our ability to be effective is rooted in these tribes: both the formal ones we call teams and the socially defined ones that surround them. In the Social Age, it’s our ability to contribute to and nurture these formal and social communities that directly influences our ability to create meaning, to be effective. The nine core skills of Social Leadership all focus around this area: developing reputation and authority based on our actions, sharing and collaborating widely, building a socially responsible and responsive business.
I think the challenges of keeping a culture healthy stay with us from startup to maturity, but the nature of the challenge changes. At the start, it’s about definition, later it becomes about scale and growth and finally it’s about reinvention and relevance.
I was in a meeting recently where someone said “We’ve come up with new organisational values“. I wonder where they found them? Values can’t be imposed: at best, they can be modelled and adopted. Sure, you can come up with words, you can write a manifesto or philosophy, but you can’t change the values lived in an organisation overnight. Lived. Values have to be kept alive or they’re simply fossils or aspirations captured in stylised organisational poetry.
Any model of organisational culture and change has to accommodate the frictions between coherent sub cultures an the wider organisational goals. It needs to facilitate a conversation to allow change to be co-defined, co-created and co-owned.