Quarterly Culture Inspiration: January 2019

You can now pre-order my book, No Hard Feelings! You can subscribe to our monthly book newsletter here.

Every quarter, I share helpful summaries and excerpts of the best books, podcasts, and articles I’ve read about culture.


Book: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele Gelfand

Michele Gelfand is a cultural psychologist, and she’s studied how tightly or loosely people adhere to social norms in different cultures. For example: “Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict.”

From an organizational culture lens, Gelfand writes about how the merger of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler in 1998 was plagued by a mismatch of a loose culture (American company Chrysler) and a tight culture (German company Daimler).

“In cultural integration workshops at the conjoined company’s headquarters in Stuttgart, American employees were taught German formalities, such as keeping their hands out of their pockets during professional interactions. German members of Daimler’s team felt uncomfortable when their American counterparts called them by their first names, rather than by their title and last name. And while the Germans wanted thick files of prep work and a strict agenda for their team meetings, Americans approached these gatherings as a time to brainstorm and have unstructured conversations.”

Another issue was competing leadership styles. “At Daimler, which revered work formalities, all business decisions came from top executives. By contrast, Chrysler’s executives often granted mid-level managers the ability to oversee their own projects, unconstrained from above.” (Beyond these two companies, Gelfand gives examples of how organizational leaders in loose cultures, such as Israel, go even further, intentionally fostering a culture of disagreement.)

Integrating these two companies was hard work. Daimler could either “compromise or cannibalize,” and it chose to cannibalize. They dispatched German managers to Detroit, and laid off American managers. Unsurprisingly, trust between the two groups plummeted. What followed was 9 years of decline in employee morale and stock price. The two companies split up in 2007. The lesson is: when merging organizations don’t consider cultural compatibility, specifically around tight and loose cultures, they can face huge challenges.

Gelfand also writes about how even within the same industry, different organizations can be tight and loose, and gives an example about IDEO!

“McKinsey and IDEO are both consulting firms, but the former work culture veers tight, while the latter leans loose. This makes sense when we consider their clients: McKinsey’s work tends to include strategy and risk assessments for corporate finance industry and government organizations, while IDEO mainly works on more creative and artistic projects for companies such as Coca-Cola and Apple. McKinsey values a hard-nosed list of company-wide objectives. Unlike IDEO consultants, McKinsey-ites have far more standardized procedures to observe at work. New hires must absorb the infamous “McKinsey way” of doing business in a rigorous training program, learning rules about how to brainstorm as a team member, make client presentations, and follow specific problem-solving steps to break down a business issue. IDEO’s loose company values, on the other hand, urge employees to ‘learn from failure’ and ‘embrace ambiguity.’ At IDEO, self-governing teams aren’t beholden to managers. The relaxed dress code is tied to a more laid-back interpretation of professionalism.”

There is so much more you can learn from this book! Check it out for yourself here.


Book: It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier

I loved Jason Fried and David Heinemeier’s first book, Rework. In their new book, they write about how the chaos, anxiety, and stress of the modern workplace is causing employees to burnout. Instead, they encourage organizations to become calm. They share how they’ve done this at their own organization (Basecamp), and how others can follow their lead. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

We’re not family:

“Companies love to declare “We’re all family here.” No you’re not. Neither are we at Basecamp. We’re co-workers. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about one another. That doesn’t mean we won’t go out of our way for one another. We do care and we do help. But a family we are not. And neither is your business.

…Whenever executives talk about how their company is really like a big ‘ol family, beware. They’re usually not referring to how the company is going to protect you no matter what or love you unconditionally. You, like healthy families would. Their motive is rather move likely to be a unidirectional form of sacrifice: yours.

…The best companies aren’t families. They’re supporters of families. Allies of families. They’re there to provide healthy, fulfilling work environments so that when workers shut their laptops at a reasonable hour, they’re the best husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children they can be.”

The trust battery:

“Tobias Lutke, CEO at Shopify, coined the term: “Another concept we talk a lot about is something called the ‘trust battery.’ It’s charged at 50 percent when people are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise.

The adoption of this term at Basecamp helped us assess work relationships with greater clarity. It removed the natural instinct to evaluate whether someone is ‘right’ about their feelings about another person (which is a nonsense concept to begin with). By measuring the charge on the trust battery, you have to do different things in the future. Only new actions and new attitudes count… A low trust batter is at the core of many personal disputes at work.”

Don’t be the last to know:

“When the boss says ‘My door is always open,’ it’s a cop-out, not an invitation. One that puts the onus of speaking up entirely on employees.

…If the boss really wants to know what’s going on, the answer is embarrassingly obvious: They have to ask! Not vague, self-congratulatory bullshit questions like ‘What can we do even better?’ but the hard ones like ‘What’s something nobody dares to talk about?’ or ‘Is there anything you worked on recently that you wish you could do over?’ Or even more specific ones like ‘What do you think we could have done differently to help Jane succeed?’

Posing real, pointed questions is the only way to convey that it’s safe to provide real answers…. The fact is that the higher you go in an organization, the less you’ll know what it’s really like.”

Read more of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.

Article to bookmark: How to transform the Design Sprint into a powerful Team Development Week

I loved Jake Knapp’s book Sprint (and have dog-eared many pages as reference) about how to run a one week design sprint. In this article, Rasmus Belter writes about how to run a design sprint while developing a strong team spirit along the way. Even if you’re not running a design sprint, you can steal some of these team development exercises to use on your own.

Quarterly Culture Inspiration: November 2018

Every month for the past two years, I’ve posted three types of culture inspiration: a visual, a book, and an article to bookmark.

Now that my book, No Hard Feelings, is coming out in January, I’m focusing on our book newsletter (you can subscribe here). So, I’m moving to writing this newsletter quarterly. I’ll be sharing helpful summaries and excerpts of the best books, podcasts, and articles about culture.

Book: Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh


From Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, and Chris Yeh comes a fabulous book that asks the question: “What separates the startups that get disrupted and disappear from the ones who grow to become global giants?” The secret is blitzscaling: a set of techniques for scaling up. (The book is based on the popular class at Stanford Business School that Hoffman and Yeh teach.) Hoffman and Yeh break down the five stages of blitzscaling:

  • Stage 1 (Family); 1-9 employees

  • Stage 2 (Tribe); 10s of employees

  • Stage 3 (Village); 100s of employees

  • Stage 4 (City); 1000s of employees

  • Stage 5 (Nation); 10000s of employees

I love this distinction— it helps to break down the differences in what an organization needs in terns of culture and leadership at each stage. One of the techniques in the book is management innovation. Here are some of the key transitions that management must make as an organization scales:

  1. Small to large teams: “Small teams can operate spontaneously and informally thanks to the personal relationships and frequent contact between team members.” As an organization grows, its team grow larger, and they can’t operate spontaneously and informally anymore. Early employees may have trouble adapting to the fact that they are not involved in every major decision anymore. “The answer is to… create other systems to help them feel connected to the company’s mission.”

  2. Generalists to specialists: In the family stage, everyone is a generalist who “can get many different things done in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. But as the company grows, it needs to shift to hiring specialists who are less fungible but have expertise in an area that is crucial to scaling the organization.”

  3. Dialogue to broadcasting: Evolving the communications processes in an organization is one of the most important but least paid attention to shifts. “As the company grows, you have to shift from informal, in-person, individual conversations to formal, electronic, “push” broadcasting and online “pull” resources. You also have to shift from sharing all information by default to deciding on what is secret and what is shareable.” Tribal organizations should have well-organized “all-hands” meetings and rituals. At the village stage, this is easier done through videoconference (as LinkedIn does) or email. “Brian Chesky addresses this need at Airbnb by sending a long email to every employee each Sunday night…. he shares his thinking on a topic he considers important to the company.”

Hoffman and Yeh share several overarching rules, one of which is “Evolve Your Culture”:

“Ignoring your culture is not an option… Clearly defining the way an organization does things matters, because blitzscaling requires aggressive, focused action, and unclear, hazy cultures get in the way of actually implementing strategy.” Plus, “culture is actually a substitute for bureaucracy and rules. The stronger you make your culture, the less you’ll have to bind people’s behavior with rigid directives.”

Imagine if someone asked a random employee from your start-up the following questions:

  • What is your organization trying to do?

  • How are you trying to achieve those goals?

  • What acceptable risks are you incurring to achieve those goals more quickly?

  • What you have to trade off certain values, which ones take priority?

  • What kind of behavior do you hire, promote, or fire?”

“Would she be able to answer those questions? Culture is critical because it influences how people act in the absence of specific directives and rules, or when those rules reach their breaking point.”

So how do you create a good culture? As a founder or early employee, you transmit the culture organically in the family stage. But as the organization grows, you also need to be more intentional. “Drew Houston makes sure all Dropbox employees are aware that they need to help re-create the culture. ‘We tell people, “You might have just joined last week, but sooner or later, you’ll be an old school Dropboxer too. So remember the things you like about this place now, because it’ll be your responsibility to make sure those things stick around.’”

There are two key levers of deliberate cultural transmission:

  1. Communications: “Airbnb, for example, employs a wide range of channels to maximize cultural transmission. The weekly e-mail cofounder Brian Chesky sends to all Airbnb employees is a powerful one. “You have to repeat things,” Brian told our class at Stanford. “Culture is about repeating, over and over again, the things that really matter for your company.” Airbnb reinforces those verbal messages with visual impact as well. Brian hired an artist from Pixar to create a storyboard of the entire experience of an Airbnb guest, from start to finish, emphasizing the customer-centered design thinking that is a hallmark of its culture.”

  2. People management: Who you hire, promote, and fire is a huge component of culture. However, many growing organizations either outsource HR or don’t pay much attention to it. It’s important to value the HR and talent functions of the organization, and to evolve them as the organization grow.

There is so much more good advice in this book!

Podcast: Reboot Podcast #31 – Why Being Real Matters


One of my favorite podcasts is Reboot, which showcases the heart and soul, the wins and losses, the ups and downs of startup leadership. On the show, Entrepreneurs, CEO’s, and Startup Leaders discuss with Jerry Colonna (executive coach at Reboot and former VC) the emotional and psychological challenges they face daily as leaders. In this episode, Jerry talks to Evgeny Shadchnev, Co-founder and CEO of Makers Academy. Ev wrestles with the question of whether it’s possible to scale an organization built on trust. My favorite moment in the podcast is when Jerry shares three questions that all leaders should ask:

  • “What am I not saying that needs to be said?”

  • “What am I saying that’s not being heard?”

  • “What’s being said that I’m not hearing?”

This advice reminds of me the two questions that Steve Jobs asked when he was leading Pixar: “He would have to figure out where his attention was needed really fast, so he would arrange sessions with all the different teams—the Cars team, the technology team, whatever—so there were a dozen or so people in each one. Then he would point to one person in each session and say:

Tell me what’s not working at Pixar.

…“That person might offer something like, ‘The design team isn’t open to new technology we’re building.’ Jobs would ask others if they agreed. He would then choose someone else and say:

Tell me what’s working at Pixar.

….Jobs would alternate between the two questions until he felt like he had a handle on what was going on.”

Take a listen to the episode here!