Everyone knows how important culture is. The right culture is attractive to talent and gets you through internal challenges and external shocks. A toxic culture drives people away.
Culture can itself be a strategy, though not one likely to show up in a strategic plan. The best firms are usually acknowledged for their powerful, positive cultures.
Sounds like good stuff, right? Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of “culture”? The trick is, culture is a pretty squishy idea and notoriously tough to formalize. This post presents a culture framework that I’ve reverse-engineered from my 18 years of on-and-off efforts to formally define the culture of Atomic Object.
Defining Your Culture
Carefully defining your culture is work, often hard work. Yet doing this work makes hundreds of future decisions much easier. Definition helps you propagate culture through space and time — between long-time employees and new hires, for example, or between geographical locations, or over time as leadership succession takes place.
Every organization of humans has a culture, whether it’s been explicitly identified and defined or not. Changing culture is hard, but it may be easier if you can all agree on what it is you’re changing.
I’m going to spare you the dictionary definition and the many alternatives you can find on the web. Instead, I’m going to share what I think is an effective framework for defining culture. My framework has the advantage of utility: you can take it and try defining your culture against it.
I’ll give a short analysis I did to try and answer the question of the completeness of this framework. I tested it against various aspects of what most people would consider visible parts of Atomic’s culture. I also talk about the potential downsides of a formally defined culture.
The Culture Framework
I didn’t develop this framework in order to apply it. Instead, I pulled it out of thinking about its components that I’ve done over the years, including recent work with Mary DeYoung. In other words, I followed good software development practices and specialized a bunch before generalizing.
While I present the framework in what I think is a logical, top-down, abstract-to-concrete fashion, it’s certainly not the way the components developed over time. It only looks organized retrospectively. I’ve been pondering and writing on purpose (here, here, and here), values (here, here, and here) and culture maintenance (here and here) since early in Atomic’s lifetime. I’ll use Atomic’s answers at each level in the framework to illustrate each element.
I believe the framework as a whole should be judged on whether each element is:
- Clearly scoped and defined
- Independent of and orthogonal to the others
- Useful to run an organization
The elements of the culture framework are:
- Purpose – Why we exist, and why that matters
- Traits – Distinguishing characteristics of individuals and the organization itself
- Values – How we act; what we expect of each other and the organization
- Vision – What we want the world to be
- Mission – How we move the world toward our vision
- Goals – What specifically we want to accomplish
As I mentioned above, I didn’t figure this framework out in a vacuum then go about applying it to Atomic. Roughly speaking, I’ve taken 6-8 passes at purpose since our founding in 2001. I set specific goals now and then over the years, wrote up our core values in 2009, stated a highly ambitious long-term goal in 2013, uncovered the notion of traits and defined them in 2017, and filled in the complete picture with vision and mission in 2018.
While this history smacks too much of insider baseball, I share it to make the important points that the framework evolved organically, over many years, and we have found value over those years from individual elements of an incomplete framework.
Why we exist, and why that matters.
Alignment with purpose is widely acknowledged to be a critical factor in employee engagement. It’s one of the 12 questions Gallup says is correlated with above-average organizational performance.
Your purpose should last for the life of the organization. It’s tied closely to the founder, assuming no drastic, existence threatening event and subsequent re-launch. Every aspect of the organization should align with the purpose. It should speak to and motivate every person in the organization.
I find Simon Sinek’s criteria for a compelling purpose and well-formed purpose statement useful. It must be:
- A just cause
- Stated in the positive
- Resilient in the face of cultural, political, and technological change
- Inclusive; accessible to all people and roles in the organization
- Service-oriented; the primary benefit of the company’s work shouldn’t be the company
A just cause purpose is one of the things Simon identifies as necessary to lead when you’re playing an infinite game. A just cause needs to be something you’d make personal sacrifices for. Statements like “to be number one” or “to be the best” or the explicit agency theory purpose “to maximize shareholder return” fail as just causes. But so does “to provide the most value to clients.”
I strongly recommend Simon’s newest book, The Infinite Game, for more on this and for other valuable insights on organizations and leadership.
To be a source and a force — a source of fulfillment for Atoms, and a force for good for our clients and in our communities.
We spend half our waking hours at work; we insist on more than a paycheck for that precious time.
We expect to
- apply our skills and competence to create value,
- form strong connections to people,
- and exchange respect, recognition, and appreciation.
We want our jobs to give us the opportunity to live more fulfilled, satisfied lives.
Being a force for good is the moral foundation of our goal to be a 100-year-old company. We fill four buckets of good:
The first bucket above represents our “commercial purpose.” This is an idea (distinct from purpose in the framework) we developed to differentiate the “why” of our existence from the value we provide clients. The latter is crucial to our continued existence, but it will certainly have to change over the course of reaching our 100-year goal. It’s already changed significantly in only 18 years. There’s more on this commercial purpose in mission.
Distinguishing characteristics of individuals and the organization itself.
People in your organization demonstrate these traits through their interactions with each other and with outsiders. You are known to the world for these traits.
Your value proposition should be supported by these characteristics. To be authentic, your marketing, leadership, policies, and community engagement should be founded on them.
Like the values below, traits can help guide your decisions, priorities, and actions. The traits should give rise to your values.
Each individual in the organization does not necessarily hold all of these traits personally, or hold them all equally, but they should not have any that run directly in opposition to them.
You can think of these traits as the “personality” of the company itself.
We also have a description of each of these traits, how Atoms show them, and specific behaviors exemplify them. For example, Unsatisfied is described as:
- We are relentlessly dissatisfied with the status quo.
- Our dissatisfaction drives innovation.
- We question the conventional wisdom.
- We enjoy learning new technologies and businesses.
- Our collective hobbies span a wide range.
- We’re widely read
- We do the right thing, even when it’s costly.
- Our actions are in alignment with our values; we show integrity.
How we act; what we expect of each other and the organization
Values define behavioral expectations of people and the organization. They were the first element of this framework that I defined carefully, and they continue to be incredibly powerful and useful.
I think it’s significant that I didn’t make these up and tell everyone this is how we should behave. Instead, I looked around and gave names to what I saw. They are observational, not aspirational.
Values should have utility. You should use them on a near-daily basis to make decisions and judge behavior. We even use them in hiring and firing.
I think it’s best to keep the list short.
- Give a shit
- Own it
- Teach and learn
- Share the pain
- Act transparently
- Think long-term
Our value mantras aren’t a comprehensive list of things we care about. We don’t, for example, have a value: “Be kind.” But we certainly expect that of each other. Our traits suggest other behaviors and expectations that aren’t necessarily codified as a value. Our website goes into some depth describing what our values mean to us.
The mantras are purposely short and pithy. We have intentionally put the focus on action by starting them all with verbs.
How we want the world to be.
This is what we hope happens as we live out our purpose. It’s the world–or the
change to the world–we want to make happen. Vision should be ambitious. Running out of a vision by either accomplishing it or having it become moot, is an existential challenge to an organization. Vision is something we can all work towards, consistent with our purpose. In the end/means dichotomy, vision is the end.
I’d love it if the world was just, peaceful, and verdant. (For those of you who don’t listen to NPR, that’s the purpose of the MacArthur Foundation.) I hope Atomic contributes in small ways to making our corners of the world a better place, but we don’t work directly to achieve a better world, so such a vision wouldn’t have much utility for us.
I suspect that vision is more useful to some organizations than others. As a service company with no products of our own, working in virtually every industry, applying our generalist skills of design and development to benefit our clients, it’s not obvious how we answer this question with something very specific.
We want more companies to be a source and a force.
There are clear ways we can work to achieve this vision; it’s quite logical given our purpose. And I believe the world would clearly be better off this way.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the element of our cultural framework that many Atoms shrug about. So far, it hasn’t had a very big impact at Atomic. It might be too disconnected from the daily lives of the majority of our maker Atoms to resonate.
How we move the world toward our vision.
In my experience, vision and mission are the most common words used in organizational definition work. They’re also frequently conflated and confused. Tight, clear, non-overlapping definitions really help if you don’t want to waste your time defining these two.
Mission supports vision. Whereas vision is usually ambitious and somewhat abstract, mission is hands-on and more concrete. It’s the things you do to achieve your vision, or at least move the world towards your vision.
Your mission can change as new ideas, new techniques, and new technology arise. New methods shouldn’t require you to change your vision or refactor your purpose. But they may very well have an impact on your mission. In the end/means dichotomy, mission is the means.
We strive to live out our purpose, be the best software makers, grow new offices, apply our model to new businesses, and inspire others.
The five clauses of our mission can be summarized as live it, be best, grow it, spread it, and share it.
We distinguish ourselves by living true to our purpose. That’s kind of sad, actually, as it reflects the reality that most organizations either don’t have a purpose or don’t have a purpose they actually live by.
Our commercial purpose is creating custom software products for other organizations. The only way to be competitive in that business is to have the best software designers, developers, and delivery leads. This, in turn, has lots of practical implications for how we recruit, retain, train, and support makers. It has implications for the technology we use, the nature of our engagements, the clients we work with, and the kinds of projects we do.
Demand for our services consistently exceeds our capacity. Couple that with a moral foundation for our existence (our “source/force” purpose), and I have a hard time saying we shouldn’t allow the company to grow.
I believe our purpose can be applied at other businesses. It’s not tied to software or technology or even service firms. We haven’t exercised this clause in our mission yet, though I’m personally doing it as a co-founder of a sawmill.
Through our success, our character, and our generosity, we can positively impact the world by inspiring and educating people and companies.
What specifically we want to accomplish.
The most concrete and mutable element of the framework exists across a variety of time scales. The most ambitious of our goals will take a century to achieve. We have office and company goals for one and three years. We set quarterly goals following the EOS execution framework.
Atomic’s Goals (A Few Examples)
To be a 100-year-old company.
To establish an office in Chicago in 2020.
To review and improve, as necessary, our employee manual.
Negative Aspects of Culture
Every organization of every age has a culture, whether it’s formally defined or not. Since every organization is a group of humans, culture includes both positive and negative aspects. One way of testing the definition of your culture is whether it covers some of the downsides.
For example, the trait of Unsatisfied at Atomic can show up in not celebrating our accomplishments, working past a healthy level, and never feeling you’ve done enough or done well.
The clause of our mission to be the best software makers can turn toward arrogance and sinful pride if we’re not careful.
If our desire to be a force for good in our communities starts to take over and over-shadow our commercial purpose, we put in jeopardy our very existence as a company (and thus, achievement of our purpose).
Our trait of Curious can lead us to explore and potentially apply technologies that may be fascinating but not right for a client’s project.
Generous can mean over-playing the Giver strategy that’s worked very well for us.
A Weaponized Culture
Culture, and cultural fit, can be weaponized to exclude people for irrelevant reasons, creating or preserving homogeneity and limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
And yet hiring people who will thrive in and respect the culture of your organization is not only smart business; it’s the only possible way to preserve your culture.
This is a complicated issue. My hope is that our culture is defined in such a way as to be independent of race, gender, orientation, nationality, class, etc. But given how much impact founders have on culture, and how very white, male, middle class, heterosexual, American, and educated I am (in short, privileged), I worry that I might not even be able to see where our culture may exclude others.
Testing for Completeness
A common definition of culture includes habits, rituals, traditions, events, and shared language. I’m not sure my culture framework covers these things, so I thought I’d test it for completeness by picking some of these from Atomic and seeing if they fall somewhere in the framework.
- A lot of Atoms go to the neighborhood bar for the 30 minutes preceding quarterly company meetings.
- Social connections are directly identified in the “source” part of our purpose. Covered.
- We have a peer recognition system that involves custom challenge coins.
- Affirmation and recognition are also explicit in our purpose. Covered.
- Our offices are human-scaled, nice (but not fancy), comfortable, open, and flexible.
- Space supports or hinders collaboration. It helps us work diligently and creatively. It reflects our transparency. It helps recruit the best makers. I see support for this in our traits, values, and mission. Covered.
- We spent $5,600 per person on professional development last year.
- Gaining mastery is part of our purpose. Our mission requires investment in people. Covered.
- We designed and distributed Atomic branded rainbow t-shirts to celebrate Pride Month.
- Being a welcoming and affirming employer gives us an advantage in having the best makers. That’s in our mission. Our relational trait requires us to engage each other as whole people, not facades. Covered.
- We carefully monitor for unintended salary inequality and won’t use negotiation on salary to our advantage when hiring.
- This feels to me like the honorable thing to do. Covered.
- We organize an internal conference every 18 months.
- Clearly a nice example of Teach and Learn. Covered.
- Our offices have a short, all-hands standup meeting every day.
- Social connection, transparency, curiosity. Covered.
- We call each other Atoms, worry about FUDA, share “wacky” ideas, send “nice words,” and refer to potential projects as “opps.”
- Our in-group lingo binds us together, defines us, and makes for efficient communication. Being part of something bigger than ourselves is part of the source in our purpose. Covered.
My testing of randomly selected aspects of our culture clearly shows they are supported by one or more elements of the culture framework.
I’ve noticed these habits, rituals, traditions, events, etc. come and go and morph over time. They arise organically and survive through their fun and/or utility. They aren’t documented anywhere.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that my sample didn’t turn up anything unsupported by our answers to the culture framework. A tradition that was directly in conflict with the framework would presumably be rejected from the get-go.
Starting from scratch to thoroughly document each element will be a pretty daunting task. I suggest doing the hardest work first (purpose), then look around and simply record what you see for traits and values. In my experience, this work is never done. Count on regular maintenance. For an existing organization, being honest with yourself when completing the framework gives you a much higher chance of ending up with something that everyone relates to and finds useful. You may not like some aspects of your culture. Identifying those things can provoke conversation around why they exist and how you might change them.
You may wish you had characteristics in your culture that you’re missing. Clearly labeling those as aspirational will save you from a predictable, cynical response by your colleagues.
If you find this framework useful, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also appreciate criticisms or observations about where you think something is missing or unnecessary.
- Leadership in a Time of Pandemic - April 3, 2020
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- A framework to define and describe organizational culture - January 21, 2020
- Atomic Ownership, Part 6: Lessons Learned - November 26, 2019