I believe culture has many components, but one of the most important is what a company and its employees value. When we talk about our values at Atomic Object, we use the term “value mantra”. Value mantras are like pattern names — they encode a lot of meaning in a short phrase. While to my knowledge we made this phrase up, the idea seems to be readily understood by most people.
Our value mantras are not posted anywhere in our office. Yet all Atoms recognize them, most could easily name 3-4 of them, and some can recite all of them. When I recently suggested that we had a fifth, unnamed value (“transparency”), the engagement at the board and company-wide level was gratifying. After a lengthy discussion and wide-spread agreement on the importance of this value, at least two dozen alternatives were suggested for possible names. The email thread debating the relative strengths of each candidate name went 65 deep. Atoms care about our value mantras.
In contrast to most mission and vision statements, our value mantras are a daily part of company life and have high utility. They help us make decisions, establish guidelines, and judge whether activities or behaviors are “Atomic” or not. When we consider experimenting with internal guidelines or client-facing business practices, we pass those ideas through the filter of our value mantras.
We look for good matches to our values when we hire. We’ll pass on technically strong candidates if we don’t feel there is a good values match, and we’ll sometimes offer a three month apprenticeship if we feel the values match is strong but there are technical deficiencies to make up. Our value mantras have also proven useful in recruiting. It’s common to hear from potential candidates that they read and responded positively to our values. When interviewing, I do a value mantras “quiz” to learn what a candidate thinks they mean, and to demonstrate their importance here at Atomic.
I expect all Atoms to live these values. Employees making an argument for a raise, or for participation in the company ownership plan, cite examples of behaviors and accomplishments in terms of our values. In the relatively few cases where I’ve needed to correct a hiring mistake, we saw not technical shortcomings, but a failure to exemplify our values. Similarly, some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made with company decisions involve violations of our values. Employees expect the company to live these values, as well.
I’ve described our value mantras below and list some behaviors and business practices that they engender.
Atomic Value Mantras
Give a shit
Atoms care deeply. They care about our clients and their projects, the profession and their careers, their peers and the company. Work is part of what makes our lives fulfilling. Through caring, we have skin in the game, and expectations and goals beyond the task at hand.
Our makers share a common “why”: We exist to create great software and get better at doing it. It’s more than just a job.
People who care deeply aren’t satisfied with the status quo. Smart people who care find ways of doing things better, cheaper, and faster. This, in turn, drives innovation in our service business.
Teach and learn
Atomic is a learning organization. Since we don’t specialize in one industry or technology, learning new things quickly is a core skill, both for our projects and to keep up in our rapidly changing field.
Beyond our individual responsibility to learn and grow, we embrace a dual responsibility to teach. We share what we learn, both internally with other Atoms, and externally, with our colleagues and clients.
We don’t hide behind trade secrets; we blog, present, and publish. We feel good when we contribute what we’ve learned to the world as a whole, and we benefit from what others have learned and shared.
Share the pain
A shared burden is a lighter burden. Our team approach to projects makes it easy to ask for help, rotate responsibilities, and have company when an extraordinary effort is required. Knowing you won’t face a daunting task alone lets you act more confidently and creatively.
Writing is not something we all relish, but marketing the company is absolutely necessary. A company blog that everyone participates in shares this necessary, but sometimes painful, duty.
Picking up trash, answering the phone, emptying the dishwasher, letting the dog out — everyone helps with these small, sometimes undesirable tasks.
Our equal-shares cash employee bonus, distributed quarterly, is symbolic of our personal responsibility, all-for-one, one-for-all attitude.
A culture of ownership started growing at Atomic from our very first days working together. It is through personal responsibility and action that we make “give a shit” effective.
Atoms don’t stand by and wait to be told what to do. They see problems and opportunities and seize them. They step up without being asked. We’re biased towards action and open to change.
For projects, “own it” means having hard conversations with customers early, while there’s time to tackle challenges. It means investigating potentially valuable, but unproven, solutions and technologies on your own, as part of your professional development.
We don’t stew long over internal conflict before addressing it. We don’t hide behind intermediaries. Our culture of ownership has given rise to broad legal ownership of the company.
We educate every employee on the economic model of our business and the implications of that model. Every quarter we share the profit & loss statement with the whole company, review the sales pipeline and statistics, and update everyone on the status of prior speculative development investments.
Education and open-book management reinforce the culture of ownership and align everyone around being an effective contributor.
Our systems for sales and project assignments are open to everyone.
Clients always know who their team members are and talk directly with them. Clients see detailed invoices for all the hours worked by every team member. They know how fast the team is working, how much work is to be done, and when their project is predicted to finish.
Our governing board holds meetings in the open, with all employees invited to observe. Detailed minutes are published to the company afterwards.
Transparency is a check on power. Curiously, it is also a help as it induces responsibility on everyone with knowledge of a problem to help contribute to the solution of that problem. Transparency is thus both a constraint, and an aid for a leader.
We make problems and opportunities apparent to everyone so we can benefit from our diversity and find the best solution or approach.
Culture and Growth
We saw growth beyond 20 people, and creating a second office, as a potential threat to our culture. Our desire to help more clients and create more value created internal conflict. Our response to the risks we were taking by growing was to be more conscious and explicit about what we value. We put a name to the things we cared about with our value mantras. We introduced culture pairs and pair lunches to more explicitly share and spread our culture to new employees. We talked together about growth and culture an awful lot.
Many of our most distinct and important business practices are grounded on one or more of our values. Our values, therefore, determine how we treat employees and how we run the company, as well as how we interact with our clients. I can imagine our business practices changing over time; I cannot imagine our values changing.
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Scott ParkerSeptember 19, 2012
Thanks for sharing. At Obtiva, we had a similar set of Core Values that significantly shaped my attitude and performance there.
How did you come up with the original four mantras? I’ve always wondered how such things come into being. Establishing core values by benevolent dictatorship seems contradictory, but putting it to the masses seems like an exercise in excessive democracy.
Carl EricksonSeptember 19, 2012
I’d enjoy learning Obtiva’s Core Values if you’re at liberty to share, Scott.
We created the original four values from years of observations, discussions, experience, and pithy phrases. As we grew I decided we needed to use the power of language and gave them their current names. After that it was a matter of usage (by me at first, then others) until they became standardized.
I think the balance between efficiency (dictator) and buy-in (democracy) is often well-served by having the dictator codify the general sense of the group as a whole.
Scott ParkerSeptember 19, 2012
Sure thing. Obtiva’s core values were…
* Demonstrate Integrity
* Deliver WOW
* Foster Community
* Inspired Learning
* Favor Collaboration
They permeated our culture. The values were the basis of our performance reviews, of gathering client feedback, and of our brand as a whole.
Carl EricksonSeptember 24, 2012
Thanks, Scott. Interesting amount of overlap with Atomic. That doesn’t surprise me at all given what I knew about Obtiva.
Are your values atomic? | Parent BrainSeptember 20, 2012
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Chadrick MahaffeySeptember 26, 2012
Hi Carl – Thanks a ton for sharing this. Are you familiar with Traci Fenton or WorldBlu? I know you say that Atomic is not a democratic company but your views on Transparency are very much in line with those CEOs of some very cool companies. I appreciate your leadership in this area. If you’re interested in hearing more about Traci or WorldBlu you can watch a quick vid here:
Carl EricksonSeptember 26, 2012
Thanks, Chadrick. WorldBlu has been on my list of things to investigate for a while, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I’ll bump it up the list.
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