Tag Archives: culture

A Framework for Developing Cultural Values

Every startup talks about their cultural values, but very few live them in a way that better allows them to win. Most are too vanilla and therefore forgotten by the team over time. There is a difference between cultural values, where companies say how they intend to operate on a spectrum compared to other companies, and principles that should apply to all companies trying to become great. Assuming good intent of co-workers, for example, is not a cultural value; it is a principle for great teamwork inside a company. It’s a dominant strategy for every company to operate that way. Cultural values should state the way this particular company does things that might be different from others. When cultural values work, they, along with dominant company building principles, should impact who gets hired, fired, and rewarded.

During the pandemic, Eventbrite felt like our company strategy had changed, we had a lot of new leadership, and our values weren’t helping us deliver against our new strategy. This was also a time where there was a lot of corporate pressure from employees on how they engaged on social issues, which was both generally distracting for a company trying to survive in war time. Other companies at the time were making headlines for, perhaps, some over-reactions to internal conflicts surrounding these topics (see Coinbase and Basecamp), and social media was over-reacting to those changes too.

So, we defined a process to evolve our cultural values, which I recommend all companies go through over time. I’m publishing the framework on how we did as a few of the startups I advise have found it helpful. This is just a framework; you don’t have to use it. The important part is to be intentional about your cultural values, and to keep them up-to-date with how you actually want your company to operate.

David, our Chief People Officer at the time, and I were inspired by a Harvard Business Review article called The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture. The article describes eight predominant cultural styles across companies. I created a spreadsheet that broke down these cultural styles based on a few different attributes, and asked our executive team to mark what they believed their predominant style to be. The attributes we focused on (which could be tweaked for your company) were:

  • Secretive vs. transparent: Do you default make things need to know or try to share everything?
  • For profit vs. for good: Are you a non-profit, willing to trade off some profit for your values, or entirely profit driven?
  • Independent vs. interdependent: Do you encourage people to move on their own or build consensus so everyone rows in the same direction?
  • Stability vs. flexibility: Do you try to keep the strategy the same or encourage pivots based on new information?
  • Whole self vs. focused on the work: Is work about work or are social causes a big part of the culture?
  • Top down vs. bottoms up: Do leaders make all the decisions or are decisions pushed down the org chart as much as possible?
  • Individual vs. team rewards: Do you reward everyone on the team the same or provide more rewards to those who deliver more impact?

You can view and copy the spreadsheet here for your own personal use. 

Hopefully, you can see on these attributes there is no right or wrong answer, just preferences of individuals on how they like to work. Obviously, I have my biases, but I have examples across every spectrum of companies operating differently and being successful. What’s important is the company is clear where on the spectrum they are. 

Each leader then picked for each attribute where on a scale of five points where they would ideally like to operate. For Secrecy vs. Transparency, for example, they would pick either: Very Secretive, Secretive, In the Middle, Transparent, Very Transparent. We then collectively ran an exercise where we defined what we believed the current leadership style of the company was today, and where the company operated today on these key questions. We then ran an exercise of where we wanted the company to go that might be different from how the company operates today.

As an executive team, we learned a lot about each other and the Eventbrite culture through this exercise. We unanimously agreed that Eventbrite was a Caring and Purpose culture as defined the HBR article. And we liked a lot of those attributes. We also noticed that a lot of the new leaders Julia had hired recently reflected more of a Learning and Results orientation. This seemed to be a deliberate exercise by Julia, if a bit of a subconscious one. So we wanted to communicate to the company more of an intentional move in that direction.

Once we aligned on these attributes and styles, what we did not do was write new cultural values. Because one of the attributes we wanted to change was to be more bottoms up, we then went to the rest of the company with this desired change, and formed a group of people across the company to develop the new values based on these directions. By workshopping every so often with David and myself, this working group defined new cultural values we then introduced to the entire company.

You will not come up with the same answers the Eventbrite executive team aligned on, or perhaps even debate the same attributes. But spending time on this alignment and using it to communicate clearly with the rest of the company can mitigate a lot of cultural issues as well as drive clarity on how certain decisions should be made beyond personal preferences.

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Currently listening to my Synthpop playlist.

On The Spectrum: Thoughts on Zuckerberg, Tradeoffs, and Cultural Values

Many founders spend a lot of time trying to codify their culture and get culture right for their company. Yet many companies end up with serious cultural issues as they scale. Frequently, this is due to a forest for the trees approach to culture. Companies think they maybe they can hide lack of alignment and political strife with pool tables and company offsites, and are surprised when they still have employee attrition problems. Most founders get past that and try to codify strong cultural values that instill how they want to work to get things done at their company. But these values are frequently some mythical view of how things could work vs. how things actually do work. The average response of an employee to a complete set of these values is slightly better than an eye roll. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen goals like “Be aggressive” at a company, but everyone is the opposite, or something is set as a cultural value that is just a thing all people should do anyway, like “Think like a founder,” when the problem is people don’t know how.

Mark Zuckerberg has taken a lot of flack for some of his management at Facebook over the years, but I believe it was he who most clearly defined what a cultural value is and isn’t.  Company values (among many other parts of building a company) are about asking, “What are you willing to give up?”. When Facebook chose “Move fast and break things” as a cultural value, they put speed and quality on a spectrum, and said they biased toward speed.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.45.52.png

Compare that to Slack. On Slack’s website, they list a few cultural values, including: Craftsmanship, Courtesy, and Solidarity. They too are picking a place on the speed vs. quality spectrum, and I bet with those words it’s a lot closer to quality.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.45.38

Neither of these is wrong in isolation. It depends on your market, your competition, your value prop, etc. In all cases, it’s important to pick where you are though. More recently, Facebook switched its core value to “Move fast with stable infrastructure.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it’s a signal to the company that at their scale, they need to prioritize quality a little more.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.45.16

There are other spectrums to consider when managing culture for a company. One is around openness. Again, here, Facebook has a value that mentions specifically how they think about it, with “Be open,” where they say “We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information as possible about every part of the company so they can make the best decisions and have the greatest impact.” Stripe is another company famous for swinging to the open side of the spectrum. Most of the email at Stripe is available for anyone at the company to read, for example. Compare this to Apple, where most projects are handled in secret, and information is given on a need-to-know basis.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.39.22

Another classic tradeoff is good for company vs. good for world. Take a company like Netflix that ruthlessly measures performance, and focuses on time spent on the platform. It very much biases towards good for company on this spectrum. But take a company like Etsy or Warby Parker that is certified as a B corporation. That’s an explicit signal that they are trading off some company performance for social responsibility. Then there’s of course companies like Kiva, which are non-profits.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.39.06

There are others like data vs. intuition, but you get the point. Plotting your company values on a spectrum is important to setting values that actually matter and driving decision-making at scale. Most that make “company value” level should be ones where you are taking a more extreme position. 

What’s really interesting is if you spend time working at companies is many companies don’t appear to be on the spectrum for some of these company company trade-offs. Now, for direct opposites like open and closed, that’s impossible, except for being inconsistent. But some companies are neither fast, nor do they deliver quality products. Some companies are not providing great financial returns or social returns. In this case, our spectrum becomes a 2×2.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.38.21

For illustration purposes only. I do not purport to know where Slack and Facebook actually sit on this 2×2.

As in all 2×2’s, it’s the worst to be in the bottom left. If you find this to be the case, the first step is to get on the spectrum. Make a decision about where you want to be, and work to get there. Then, once you’ve landed on the spectrum, you can try to optimize toward getting to the top right of the 2×2. Even though Facebook changed its value, I bet it’s still faster at building and higher quality than a lot of other companies. The same can be said for Slack. Except for Slack Threads. They definitely drifted into the bottom left on that one. I… really hate Slack Threads.

Whether you update your company values to reflect these spectrums is not the point of this post. The point is to be intentional about the tradeoffs you’re making, and revisit them over time to make sure they still make sense, like Zuckerberg did. You may find you’re not making a tradeoff at all; you’re just performing poorly on both axes, or you may find that the value you picked five years ago no longer matches the needs of your company.

Thanks to Brian Balfour for reading through an early draft of this and providing his feedback.

Currently listening to Flamagra by Flying Lotus.