I met with Corey Thomas from Rapid7 to talk about culture. Here are my notes.
Corey defines culture as “shared beliefs about how to create success”. These are beliefs you won’t compromise on, that you’ll live and die by. It’s better to fail with a principled and well-articulated set of beliefs than to exist in a wishy-washy state of uncertainty.
Another way to think about culture is as a guide for making decisions. When something unexpected or challenging happens, how would you like the people on your team to handle it. Should they do what will cause the least conflict (HBR calls this an emphasis on order), do what is bold or daring (emphasis on authority), do something playful (emphasis on enjoyment), etc. At Rapid7, their culture is “do the right thing, do it fast, learn from it”, so an appropriate response might be to do the thing that lets you learn the most (even if it may be wrong or costly) and then look to iterate and improve.
Corey likens culture to a band playing together. Each person must be excellent at their instrument, but it’s only when they play together that they can make beautiful music. Similarly, if one person is out of tune or not on the same page, they ruin the whole experience. Good culture is coherent.
There’s no such thing as the one right culture. There are only tradeoffs. Whatever culture you have, it will naturally emphasize some universally valuable qualities at the expense of others that are equally valuable, but not to you or not right now. If your culture values predictability and preparedness, it will do better in a static environment where planning ahead is particularly useful. In a situation where things change constantly and planning is less effective, it will struggle.
The important thing is to understand your culture, and what inherent upsides and downsides it has. A strong culture will always have negatives, and if you see them clearly you can accept them and manage to them.
How to identify your culture? Ask yourself what you believe creates success. It doesn’t have to be true in the objective sense. It only has to be true for you - something you collectively choose to believe at the moment.
As you name each belief out loud, test yourself to make sure it really is what you think. Maybe you said that the most important thing is fun - that if everyone is excited and having fun at work, you will get the best results. If that is true, would you hire someone who struggles to finish work on time and isn’t that smart, but is extremely funny and playful? If no, then “fun” is probably a nice-to-have for you but not a core part of your culture.
Thinking about the extreme case helps you eliminate the platitudes. Corey calls this the “motherhood and apple pie” of culture. Some values like honesty are basic requirements, so it’s not helpful to say that’s what your culture is. Of course everyone has to tell the truth. Other values sounds nice, but when you dig deep you realize you can’t have everything and you have to choose. Do you want high creativity or high efficiency? Having both is extremely difficult.
Corey identified our culture at LBRY as a “big idea” culture. We have a big idea (that people want a decentraized marketplace for digital content, that Bittorrent + payments + global index is a winning combination, that using a blockchain to store metadata about content on the network is a scalable and useful application) and we’re creating it together. We are meritocratic and semi-autonomous.
As a consequence, Corey warned that LBRY may struggle with cohesion and cooperation. Leadership may expect people to come to us with problems instead of proactively providing support, but if we’re not clear on this expectation, we may be neglecting someone. Corey also thought that we may struggle to meet short-term goals because big ideas take a long time to bring about.
If he’s right, acknowledging this will help us make active decisions about the tradeoffs. Most importantly, we can be explicit about them to ourselves. We should not be surprised at some of the challenges we’re facing, because they are a direct result of what we (heretofore implicitly) chose to value.
When I asked Corey how he created this model of culture for himself, he said his approach is to look for consistency and “contradictions that matter”. Cultures generally have multiple competing foci. That’s ok if the tension created there is beneficial. For example, American culture emphasizes liberty and equality. You can’t actually have both, but this contradiction creates a very useful conflict that has lead to a lot of progress. That said, it is generally very hard to pursue multiple goals that are opposed, so Corey suggests only doing it if “the payoff would be astronomical”.
Update: HBR published an article echoing the importance of understanding and managing contradictions in innovative cultures.
HBR: The Culture Factor (here’s a summary)
more from Corey