A culture for your skill

In a world of high speed, high complexity and high quality we need smart people to work on smart and innovative solutions. But even though smart people come together at a start-up it can completely fail. Not because of the lack of skill but almost always the lack of culture.

More an more start-up entrepreneurs try and work with remote resources and have the smartest people work on their ideas. Sometimes it works out and things get created but in the start-up work many things go wrong on a simple mismatch of culture. Experts do not know how to work with one another, maybe do not share the same goals and visions. In a small company these things are more important than in bigger ones but a strong company culture can really skyrocket production speed and result quality.

But why is a good developer able to create bad results when the culture is wrong? Why will a normal developer do really good things when in a comfortable cultural environment?

Sources of culture

When looking at where company culture comes from it has a lot to do with the way the company is set up from a business side. Working on-site or from home, working on a product or as a service, working on an ideology or just an idea are all factors that come into play when it comes to forming a company culture. The people who start the company will shape the culture together with the decisions made by the entrepreneurs who started the venture. What type of persona’s are hired, where they work and how their work is defined plays a huge role in what kind of a culture will grow and work for a company.

The hired gun vs. the loyal follower

This is a dilemma start-ups are facing all the time. Do I hire the mercenary that will get the job done, or do I hire the enthusiast that will work night and day to reach our goal? Both have their distinct advantages over the other and both are valid option. But choosing one or the other will need you to change your strategy drastically.

The hired gun

A hired gun comes in mostly for money, they carry the experience you want and have the tendency to get the job done as soon as possible. Fast and high quality are their main traits but they lack on the loyalty factor. Many hired guns only have a monthly contract or only up to a certain time. They like to work from home and are not the ones to take charge in finding creative solutions. You tell them what you want and you get it.

This is extremely useful when a start-up needs a prototype or a specific thing done quickly. The loose ties also mean that it is easy to just pull the plug on a project without losing too much extra money. The speed and loose coupling makes the use of the hired gun very flexible. A down side of this is that creative work is very hard to have done as it requires a longer commitment and a more involved way of working.

The loyal follower

Trying to find a loyal follower is hard. This is mainly because money is not the main reason for their work a personal challenge or an ideal is more likely to draw these kinds of people. This makes them extremely involved into what they are doing. What they might lack in skill and speed they make up for with enthusiasm and they are in for the long run. They believe in the ideology behind the product and understand the deep underlying problems. You share an idea and they run with it.

A start-up needs people who believe in the idea to carry it. A start-up is almost never about some loose components but it is about a complete product with all the different mechanisms, ideas and ideals. That can only be created by people who will drive for solving the ideological problems. As these people are deeply involved in the business they are rooted into the business and are a lot harder to hire and harder to get rid of but you get loyalty in return.

A team vs the individual

We’ve all seen this in one way or the other… If we look at sports, writing, software engineering or anything else that can be done by either a team or an individual we know that they both have their strengths and weaknesses. In start-ups it is a choice to go for the individual or the team approach. Even though you might have a group of people it does not mean you have a team.

A team

There is a saying; “there is no I in team…, there is me…”. Although not the original saying it is the adaptation that makes it even more true. “I” is a very strong and selfish expressive way of referring to ones self; “I will make this change”. Compared to that “me” is a lot more humble; “That change will be made by me”. Although the difference is subtle the significance in this context is big. A team has no place for the ego of “I” but has room for the individual that is “me”.

Teams can move mountains but also require work to create and maintain. A team can only work if there is empathy for one another and the skills are complementary. Empathy goes from helping one another out all the way to catching a bullet for one another (not literally of course). If a team is really a team it works just as good at the A-team.

The individual

As an individual there is less dependency on others. The individual thrives on its own and can work as a modular block in a bigger system. Acting as a black box from the outside the interaction with the outside is only done on the edge of the define space of the individual. Focusing on the; “what I have to do” the individual reaches the goals set in the most efficient way they can.

Individuals are flexible and can therefore easily be moved around. Speed is in general very good as the individual can work very efficient without a lot of distractions. The individual must be very resourceful and accurate as there is no-one to catch errors or cavities in skills. A well trained individual is as resourceful and flexible as MacGyver.

Local culture

I’ve done some work in different countries and with even more nationalities. I found that company culture is one part what is created within the environment of the company, one part personal values and one part national heritage. Although the last one is not true to all people and there are a lot of differences between people of the same nationality there are certain tendencies for the same kind of behavior.

Some countries always have been more social in nature that will show in the way people can work within a team. As education differs from country to country there is also differences in the way people are treated as individuals or as a group. Somebody from Japan is much more likely to function well in a team compared to someone from Australia. The culture has a big influence on how these nationalities can work can naturally work as an individual or a collective.

Even though it is not always true the national culture of an individual can influence the way they work and what environment suits them best.

The driver(s)

I almost forgot this last source of culture. The ones who actually decide on the start of the company. The entrepreneurs are the starters of the company and will have of course a huge say in the culture as they are the initial drivers. Drivers that pick the first people to work for them, drivers that choose if they will keep driving or if they are going to share that responsibility with others and even drivers that manage a company in a certain way to grow a culture.

As an entrepreneur you are the first employee of the company and will be the first one to actually drive the company forward. Naturally you create culture, for what it’s worth at least. When more people join the company they will also bring culture into the mix but here is when a choice will need to be made. As an entrepreneur, will you run the company as your company or will you start managing the company and get everyone involved in running it? This decision is fundamental in how the people are tied to the company and what culture will grow.

The options are here either running the company or managing it.

Influence of culture

Even though skill is very important in a technical company and especially start-ups require good people to get it started. But the culture is the only thing that will keep people working at a start-up. The pay is not the best in the business but the things start-ups do are more interesting. However for the people to do their best work they must be comfortable, relaxed and secure in their comfort zone. Culture plays a big part here. The wrong culture will make your highly skilled people walk because they know they can get a better environment to work in easily. Another issue is that people will become unhappy because of the environment does not suit them and being unhappy does not make anyone more productive.

So even though you might have highly skilled people they will not be doing it for you as long as they do not fit the environment. They will also not last as long as they should, leaving for new ventures and other interesting ideas. Keeping everyone interested will also be a lot more difficult.

What does make a good culture?

Well, that will be very different from case to case. I’ve seen both on-site and home-working company cultures succeed. If it is a short commitment or a long lasting loyalty also had both good and bad results. Working with the local culture or a multicultural outfit has also both been proven beneficial. I’ve seen different grades of this also had big success. One company had a core team of 8 engineers and worked with a lot of developers from all over the world on smaller projects. The projects were driven from the core on-site team of loyal people that were working with the short term contractors to create a specific functionality.

The one constant factor where every start-up I’ve seen has failed was due to a closed group running the company. The entrepreneur(s) running the company without at least listening very carefully to their employees had big issues with moving forward. But why? The one thing all start-up employees do is buy into an idea. They are interested in the ideology, the business and not just the money. As an entrepreneur or management team runs the company they will give orders and it is very likely that these were not in line with the ideas of the employees. That is why a start-up can only be guided and not be run.

The best culture is the one that is created by the employees and that is run by the employees. Give them an idea with a culture to match and they will perform miracles.

Changing a culture

Changing culture is hard and does not come without sacrifice. Employees will need to re-think their way of working together but also their own goals. In a competitive company culture the goal is do to as much and as fast as possible. Performance is seen as a game that you can win and loose. But put one of these competitive employees in a team based environment and they will be cast out by the team as they are not used to adding to the collective.

It involves a fundamental change in way of working. Instead of having your own plate you will have a shared plate and after you are done you will go and assist your team mates. Human interaction is the basis of good team work. The same goes for putting a team player in a competitive environment. They are used to rely on their team mates and without support and connections to others they will take longer to get their work done and are less happy about their functioning.

A change like this can only be done gradual and taking it step by step. Introducing practices to improve team spirit or performance exercises can help in this transition. Doing both however will work counter productive as employees will find their own interpretation into different directions.

What does it all boil down to?

It all boils down to the entrepreneur being aware of culture and how it can influence the way of working. This decision will influence what type of people you want to hire. Short term commitment or a long term dedication, team or individual based, on-site or from home are all things to consider and that will affect the way they are working. Being aware of this can really save a lot of headaches when the wrong people are matched to the culture.

The ball does not only lie with the entrepreneurs but also with the employees. They need to know what they are signing up for and they need to agree with the approach. A culture can never be forced so a consensus is more likely to succeed as a successful culture than one that is forced upon people. The entrepreneur is the carrier of the idea but the employees will always be the ones that carry the actual realization of it. The people doing the work are the pillars of the company.

Don’t forget to have some fun with it

It might seem that culture is all serious business but that is not the whole story. When building a company culture have some fun with it. Introduce Foosball tables, have a monthly ritual or adopt a mascot for the company. Fun is an easy way to make the common connection that is required for a company culture.

Mojang games has an avatar for all the founding members of the company and they love to have toys of the games they create lying around the office. Google has several slides inside their offices and LivingSocial as a Roller-ball arcade machine at it’s DC office. Just have fun with it and create a culture that has it’s own fun flavor added to it.

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