Quarterly Culture Inspiration: January 2019

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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.