I’m the founder of a company that I hope thrives well beyond my lifetime. Part of my job these days, fifteen years from our creation, is to pay close attention to company culture: what it is, how we communicate it, how we transmit it, and how we might usefully adapt it. When I recognized the need for some maintenance of our value mantras, I took it to the people who own them. I was both surprised and happy with what happened.
What’s a value mantra?
We use value mantras as a short-hand notation for what we care about and expect from each other and the company. Those things are a big part of our culture. Until recently we had five value mantras:
- Give a shit
- Teach and learn
- Own it
- Share the pain
- Act transparently
From the original four (“Act transparently” was added in 2012), our values are aspects of our culture that I observed and named. They existed many years before I named them. For example, I didn’t decide one day that I wanted a company where people cared about each other and their work, and where they valued learning, and thus told everyone to “give a shit” and “teach and learn.” I just noticed that these things were true and codified them in our mantras. We use our values frequently; having short, pithy names for them is quite handy. Read more »
We’ve been working for several years to improve the gender balance at Atomic Object, largely because we held “Diversity is good” to be self-evident. But recently I decided it was important to think through this belief and better understand it. Here’s why I think diversity is valuable, and makes my company stronger.
Diversity Means Liberty
Rather than an unquestioned end unto itself, I find it useful to think about diversity as an indicator of something valuable. Diversity in a profession is a measure of society’s success in achieving liberty. It indicates opportunity that can be capitalized on by anyone, regardless of gender, race, country of origin, age, etc.
Presuming there is no profession that is uninteresting to or unachievable by any particular group of people, then a diverse workforce is an indicator that there are no artificial barriers in place in the profession. The “natural” diversity of any given profession, absent of obstacles, is debatable. I believe all professions are attainable and of at least some interest to all groups of people. Increased liberty creates flexibility, greater productivity, and less waste from untapped talent. I think about this as labor market optimization.
In a liberal (in the British sense) society we place a value on an individual’s ability to make their own choices. This concept is famously noted in our Declaration of Independence as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Given how much of our lives we spend working, it’s hard to imagine achieving this goal with artificial constraints on career choice. A profession with very little diversity is a likely indicator of limits on liberty. Read more »
Atomic Object joined the ACLU’s Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition following a couple of eye-opening experiences I had in 2015. The MCWC is organized around the goal of updating Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity. What I learned was that on this issue, it’s not enough to be a company that doesn’t discriminate, and which welcomes and treats everyone respectfully. We’ve been all those things from our founding in 2001. What we haven’t done well in the past is to be explicit and clear about our values and behaviors.
The Atom We Nearly Never Knew
Months after a talented young developer joined Atomic, they shared the fact that as a candidate looking in from the outside, they weren’t at all sure they could be themselves as an employee and not need to hide their sexual orientation. They contrasted this very positively with how things turned out once they were actually an Atom. The fact that they were comfortable as an employee, and didn’t have to waste time and energy masking who they were as a person, isn’t at all surprising to me. The eye-opener was that they couldn’t be sure about this from the outside looking in, even after having gone through our extensive interview process and having read our diversity statement.
In a world of talent scarcity—certainly the one software design and development companies live in currently—it would be foolish to not accommodate a proven employee’s request to move to a part-time schedule if the job allows it.
I think the value equation for part-time knowledge workers is usually favorable toward the company. Presuming part-time work is desired by an employee, this should be a win-win situation. Read more »
I recently avoided a mistake I’ve made plenty of times in the past. The mistake I could easily have made was in how I reacted to an internal screwup. I attribute my better reaction to an experience I’d had a few hours before learning of the mistake we made.
Our marketing manager came up to me, a little upset, and told me we’d had an article published on one of our projects that inaccurately reported the membership of the team, excluding not only all of the designers, but both women who’d worked on the project. She’d heard from one of the designers who was justifiably irritated. Our marketing manager admitted she’d been busy, had handed the reporter off to a developer on the project, then moved on to other stuff she was trying to finish. Read more »
UPDATE 4/4/15 You can find the raw data I’ve used here at the bottom of the post.
I made an interesting discovery recently while spelunking in our time tracking system. The distribution of sick time, over all the people we’ve ever employed, very closely follows a logarithmic distribution.
All Atomic employees track their time on all activities, whether billable client projects or internal work. We’ve been doing that since we started, so our time tracking tool has nearly 13 years worth of data (679,263.25 hours, over 86 people). We find this data invaluable for analyzing our business, making staffing decisions, estimating, planning, and juggling responsibilities.
The graph below shows total sick time (blue bars) for all past and current employees, sorted by largest to smallest, left to right. The smooth blue curve is a logarithmic function. It has an R2 of 0.989 with the data. The red bars show absolute variance of each blue bar, versus the log function, at each point.
Atomic Object launched a new website back in November. While I believe the end result is very good, the time and effort it required surprised me. In the process I think I figured out why it is difficult to market companies like Atomic, and why it’s often done poorly.
I’ve come up with a HierArchy of Relative Difficulty (HARD). Where your company exists on the HARD scale determines how much time, money and expertise you’ll need to effectively market, or conversely, how likely you are to be marketing your company poorly.
No slight on the widget makers of the world, but their marketing challenge is pretty straightforward. The picture below illustrates the situation. Companies that make a concrete product have a straightforward marketing challenge. Describing the product isn’t difficult. It has known features, materials, quality, costs, and benefits of use. The marketing can be directed to the person who will both buy and use the product.
A service is inherently more abstract than a product. Service companies therefore have a tougher job in telling their story. The features and benefits of their service are less concrete. Pricing may be more complicated, and the relationship with the customer is more intimate and less transactional. Quality is more subjective. There are no materials.
I’ve always believed that innovation comes from people who care. When you care about your profession, your clients, your peers, and your company, you’re never entirely happy with the status quo. You ask questions like, Can this be done better? Quicker? Cheaper? Is there a different product that would help or delight people? The self-applied pressure to improve, combined with creativity, brains and experimentation, drives innovation.
Transparency is a cultural attribute of a company that, when exhibited by managers and leaders, engenders trust in employees. Trust is a critical element to nurture caring people. After all, caring makes you vulnerable, and if you don’t trust the company or the people you work with, your caring is likely to wither, or you’re likely to move on.
Transparent environments have some downsides. I’ve previously written about their ability to spread anxiety, sow confusion, and slow decisions down. These negative outcomes of transparency reflect my viewpoint as the leader of Atomic Object. Research reported in the Harvard Business Review this month helped me see some negative aspects of transparency from an employee’s perspective.
In the Transparency Trap, Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, describes a simple, powerful model for understanding the downsides of a transparent environment. Bernstein observed four types of boundaries in companies that effectively balance transparency and privacy:
- Boundaries around teams
- Boundaries between feedback and evaluation
- Boundaries between decision rights and improvement rights
- Boundaries around time
A company can’t reach the milestone of celebrating its 100-year anniversary unless it can out-live its founder. In fact, it can’t even get to the lesser goal of outliving the founder’s retirement unless it pays attention to succession planning. This blog post is about the path Atomic took to reach this point.
A Multiyear Effort
Handing over responsibility and daily operations for our first and largest office was a multiyear project. We’ve now achieved the significant milestone of replacing me as founder in the managing partner role for Grand Rapids.
To be clear, I’m giving these phases names, durations, and significance retrospectively; the only “plan” I made was to achieve the goal, and the initial impetus to start was feeling overwhelmed.
In 2008 we were seven years old with about 20 Atoms in the molecule. I was selling all the work we did, planning capacity, actively involved in billable work (35% of my time that year), managing people, networking, marketing, wrestling with issues around growth, and working on broadening ownership. I got some help on some of these things, but what was on my shoulders was more than a full-time job (2,370 hours that year), more than I could do well, and pretty stressful. Read more »
My company is 13 years old this month. We’ve reached the average age of US corporations. We’ve succeeded in replacing me — our Grand Rapids headquarters has been more than ably run by Mike and Shawn since January of this year. Heck, we even recently outlived our first dishwasher.
And yet, like our age in human years, we’re a gangly teenager in some ways. We’re still growing into our recently expanded Michigan presence — Detroit and Ann Arbor still have plenty of unmet potential. We’re adapting our internal operations to multiple offices, and we’re refining how an Atomic office at full scale operates.
A few years ago I realized our short-term future was secure, so I started thinking more about the long-term. My initial long-term goal was to have Atomic outlive my involvement in the company. That goal drove me to work on succession, ownership, and governance. Last year at Path to Craftsmanship, I shared a revised long-term goal: I want Atomic to be the first 100-year-old software design and development consultancy. Read more »