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.
Our value mantras aren’t exhaustive. We expect all Atoms to treat people respectfully, but we don’t have a mantra for that. We expect them (and the company) to be honest, but again, no mantra about honesty. We expect personal responsibility and integrity but lack mantras to that effect. At Atomic, if you think it’s ok to be cruel, or a bigot, you’d be mistaken, and (even though we don’t have a value mantra decrying such behavior) quickly unemployed. Keeping the list of value mantras short seems like an important and useful constraint.
A missing value?
Discussing our vision to someday be a 100 year old company with Mike and Shawn got us thinking about what undergirds that vision, and whether there was something more broadly true about our culture which the vision exemplified. We realized there was — we favor the long term over the short term — and we decided this was an important thing to enshrine in our mantras.
I see us thinking long term when we:
- Do things right, not just expediently
- Experiment with internal governance structures
- Create a broad base of employee ownership
- Build tests for the products we develop
- Decide to buy a building
- Advise clients on maintenance and software product ownership
- Build relationships with people, not just companies
- Hire employees, not contractors, for the vast majority of our work
- Contribute to the communities we live in
When I shared my observations of how Atoms favored the long term, and asked everyone whether they thought that was so important that we should add a value mantra to describe it, the response was positive and unanimous. That didn’t surprise me, given that our values are all observations of existing behavior, not edicts for new behavior. After some online brainstorming we settled on the simplicity and active voice of “think long term” for our new value mantra.
Lisa, our Marketing Manager, asked Atoms how they would define Think Long Term. You can read some of their answers here: Introducing our 6th Value: “Think Long Term”.
Reconsidering “Share the pain”?
When I asked everyone about the possible new value, I posed a second question to the company as well. If we feel it’s important to add a value about long-term thinking, should we consider dropping one to keep the list to five? “Share the pain” was my possible candidate for the chopping block, as it has some negative connotations. As it turned out, there was a strong reaction against dropping “share the pain”. As the person most responsible for cultural maintenance and communication, I was very happy to hear what “share the pain” meant to people, how they felt it was different than the other four values, and why they opposed dropping it.
Here are some of the observations Atoms made during our discussion:
“Share the Pain is an important expression of what it means to be outwardly aware of others and to be empathetic and generous. It requires us to reach outside our own perspective, our own work and our own challenges, to help others.”
“My client’s pain is my pain. Whether it be a design, technical, or personnel problem, I make it my business to help them and their business as if it were my own.”
“…we back each other up in our projects, helping each other and our clients (particularly when we’re working side-by-side with them) to reach our project and professional goals.”
“I think there’s real value to the fact that Share the Pain carries with it the negative connotation of “Pain” because it’s a good reminder that we’re here to work, and that work is not always all roses. I think that can serve as an important counterbalance to an overly optimistic idealism we can develop when working at a place as great as Atomic. But even when harsh reality (Pain) rears its ugly head, we won’t be alone in confronting it. Hard to ask for more than that.”
The performance of really great sports cars isn’t only a matter of what happens at the factory; they require regular, preventative maintenance to keep their edge. Companies need maintenance as well, to last and to perform to a high standard. Culture is owned by the people who live it, but initiating maintenance usually comes down to an individual.
Welcome “think long term”, and long live “share the pain”.
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- A framework to define and describe organizational culture - January 21, 2020
- Atomic Ownership, Part 6: Lessons Learned - November 26, 2019