Software Consulting

Corporate Culture Failures

I have been thinking about corporate culture lately, especially that of technology companies. As I look back on the companies I've worked with, even including one that I cofounded, I get a sense that corporate culture is hard to get right, and therefore rarely is done well. It seems like a lot of smaller tech enterprises see the way Google, Apple, or Amazon sell their culture in recruiting videos and jump on the band-wagon without really thinking it through. The result is a hodgepodge of value statements and actual behaviors that are uncomfortably out-of-sync. At least in high tech, where all of my experience lies, catchy slogans, an open office plan, and a foos-ball table are too-often used as replacements for real corporate culture.

But what is real corporate culture? A quick search reveals multiple answers, as well as multiple opinions on its value and efficacy. It does not surprise me that many of my peers in the technology industry appear to have generally negative impressions of corporate culture as a concept. This is no doubt the result of having lived through poorly implemented and improperly managed cultures.

At this point, you might expect me to launch into a description of the steps to take to implement a well-thought-out and effective corporate culture. Sorry to disappoint, but all I can say about a good corporate culture is that I'll know it when I see it. There is no one right answer, but there are mistakes that seem to be made over and over again, and on this topic, I do have some strong opinions. Read on for my top three Corporate Culture Failures.

FAIL #3: Value Statements as Internal Marketing
The value statements that are often the best descriptors of company culture should be honest and free of marketing hype. This is especially true in the technology industry, where employees at all levels tend to be smart, driven and highly educated.

I once worked with a start-up company that went out of its way to talk up its open office plan, where engineers and others were packed into a bull pen, as being "designed for a high level of creativity and collaboration." Despite this, most engineers were working on solitary assignments, and noise-canceling head-phones became the office walls in that space. Another start-up I worked with had a similar open plan office, but among their value statements was one that went something like "make more with less." This company's actions and value statements enforced that frugality was a valued cultural trait.

For both companies, the primary benefit of the open office plan was to conserve scarce and costly resources by using less space per employee. While I had to snicker a little at the first company's transparent efforts to "sell" the office space, I greatly appreciated the second company's honest value statement that drove this and other of its behaviors. Treat employees as partners in the business and you will be surprised that they will not only make sacrifices for the good of the company, but will also offer new and innovative ideas to further its goals. While there is a time and place for internal marketing, spin and hype have no place in the value statements that define your culture.

FAIL #2: Corporate Culture Creates Employee Monoculture
Have you ever walked into a company and noticed that everyone looked, dressed, spoke and acted similarly? I'm not talking about some obvious ethnic or gender bias. Indeed, the company may appear rather diverse on the surface, but that, as they say, is only skin deep. The problem can always be ascribed to too narrowly defined value statements coupled with defects in interview style that cause screening candidates for "cultural fit" to become much more like "weeding out people who aren't like us." This subtle form of discrimination takes on many forms, but in the worst cases, can result in a team or even a whole company where employees march in lock-step, rarely questioning the status quo.

I am a believer in "cultural fit." A technology team must work like a well oiled machine and I would much rather have a team of good engineers who work well together than a a team of super-geniuses who can't stand each other and drive everyone else crazy. But you can take this preference too far, A team where everyone is in constant agreement is rarely a source of true innovation and creativity.

If you are a manager, you need people willing to question authority and call you out if you are wrong. If you are on a team, you want an environment where lots of ideas get discussed, where prevailing wisdom is frequently second-guessed and where new approaches are actively encouraged. Much has been written about "disruptive technologies" and it is generally considered a compliment for an innovation to receive this moniker. Keep in mind that people create technologies, and the source for much innovation is in disruptive individuals. Your corporate culture does not have to tolerate egos and assholes, but if you want to maximize creativity, innovation and productivity, it must provide room for the widest possible array of styles and experiences among the teams that will be doing the work.

FAIL #1: Cultural Values Quash Dissent and Criticism
Negativity in the workplace has been the subject of countless articles and blog posts. All discuss how not to be a negative employee or what to do if you manage one. It is true that there is a right way and a wrong way to criticize or to deliver bad news, but regardless, perhaps the most destructive corporate culture failure I have witnessed is what I call the culture of eternal sunshine.

This phenomenon results when founders or management display a pathological aversion to anything that could even remotely be construed as negative. In such companies, everyone is happy, deadlines never slip, and the path forward is always clear. In the real world, mistakes are made and bad things happen, but a company that discourages the flow of bad news suffers from ignorance of its true problems. In cultures that evolve down this path, employees tend to develop a belief that their managers can't handle the truth. The managers in cultures such as this are effectively surrounded with "yes-men" and are deprived of the insight and knowledge that is essential to rational decision-making.

It is imperative that value statements are carefully crafted to avoid this. An open channel for criticism and introspection is vital. On the teams I've led I encourage honest dissent with one simple caveat: everyone is welcome to criticize an idea or to say that something cannot be done; but they must immediately follow it up with what they think a better course would be, or what alternatives exist that could be done. Encourage people to avoid knee-jerk reactions, holding their criticism until they have had a chance to think about how they would solve the problem. Not only does this keep valuable "bad news" flowing, but it also creates a stream of alternative ideas.

And in Conclusion...
Nurturing the development of a cohesive and productive corporate culture is a living thing, it takes constant attention. Blindly copying what works for others may provide a startiong-point or template, but it can never replace values and behaviors that have been tailored to the realities of a particular company. When using value statements to define culture, always keep these goals in mind:

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