September 12, 2011: By Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry contributed to Fast Company
Like the age-old riddle about silence–which expires the moment you say its name–culture defies cultivation. The latest HR theories can no more measure a company’s culture than an MRI can isolate an individual’s soul . . .
No drab mission statement ever inspired anyone to put in extra hours on a side project, no weekend team-building exercise in the forest ever got executives and hourly workers to sit side by side at lunch on Monday, and the world has yet to see an employee handbook capable of boosting employee morale. The greater the effort to formalize it–to box it in with structure and guidelines–the faster culture slips away. Nevertheless, diligent HR pros devote dense manuals full of prescriptive theory to its creation, only to throw up their hands, exasperated, when it materializes spontaneously in the ranks of unassuming start-ups all around them. At Method, we understood that too much process would only be an impediment. The challenge was to institute process without suffocating culture–but how?
“Our challenge as a company was, how do you keep the magic alive?” says Rudy Becker, the resinator (aka engineering director). “It’s one thing to succeed when you’re small, but how do you keep all the good stuff while you grow? We knew what got us where we were and we didn’t want to lose that. If we did lose it, it would almost not be worth it anymore.”
In the midst of countless aimless discussions about how to fix Method’s culture, our big spender (or CFO), Andrea Freedman, had an epiphany. What if we were to establish a pod to build and maintain our culture–a kind of ministry of culture?
Take a moment to identify the best aspects of your life at work and imagine how a group of devoted caretakers might help those aspects flourish. If you’re still in the business-plan stage, make a list of all the qualities you envision in your ideal workplace and how you might encourage them on a day-to-day basis. Don’t worry too much about what’s practical at this stage–rather than an actionable plan, think of this as the ideal. The “Ministry of Culture” sounded great in theory, but we feared it would just be an HR department by another name. Meanwhile, if culture was by definition greater than the sum of its parts, was it worthwhile–or even possible–to bother with the building blocks?
Questions like this got us thinking. More rules and guidelines were the wrong thing when the company was young and growing. We were small. Our touch points were closer. You didn’t have to turn in a form for someone else to do something for you–you just walked over to the one person who did it. But as we grew and the company got bigger, we understood that some process might actually help free time and energy.
In search of how to introduce more process without smothering our culture, we consulted a handful of kindred spirits–companies we believe have built and maintained strong, organic cultures. After all, we’ve always been big believers in seeking inspiration from companies that do things better than we–be it consumer-facing stuff like branding and packaging or behind-the-scenes areas of expertise like R&D and distribution. So, we figured, why not ask others’ advice on culture?
In search of perspective, we approached six companies we knew and respected–Apple, Google, Pixar, Nike, Starbucks, and Innocent, the trendy British beverage maker–asking each of them one key question, “What really matters to you when it comes to great culture?” Unsurprisingly, the six had a lot to say. Taking it all down, we noticed three key themes common to all of them:
FOCUS ON HIRING GREAT PEOPLE Rather than hiring on expertise alone, make sure personalities and attitudes match your company. If you’re about to hire someone and your gut tells you they’re not a good fit, leave the seat open for now.
EMPHASIZE CULTURE FROM THE BEGINNING Explain the company’s culture to new hires, making it clear to them that they were hired in part because of how they fit in.
GIVE PEOPLE LOTS OF FEEDBACK Take the time on a regular basis to remind your employees how they’re doing vis-a-vis your values and culture. In addition, we noticed that all our kindred spirits encouraged their employees to embrace a sense of purpose at work. It was less a rule than a value, a shared belief that motivated everyone in his or her unique way. Reflecting on our own situation, we understood that our culture needed a set of values that clarified our purpose as a company.
This was the turning point. Though we’d never before defined our values, Method had always been a purpose-driven company. Purpose was one of our key competitive advantages–motivating us to work harder, longer, and smarter than our competition. Shared values and purpose inspired us. There was only thing left to do: articulate exactly what those were.
Combining our offsite notes with the suggestions we had gleaned from our culture idols, we recruited a handful of team members from various departments and asked them to work with our leadership team members to distill everything down to five core values. The team became known as the Values Pod.
Sure, we could have boiled everything down between the two of us, but we wanted our values to come from the bottom up. Years later, we discovered that companies like Zappos and Innocent had gone through the same process. (To say nothing of the founding fathers …) Consider the benefits. Drawing your values from the company ranks ensures that they will represent the richness of the brand, stay relevant at every level, and be embraced by employees year after year.
After incorporating input from every level of the company, our Values Pod presented us the final list:
• Keep Method weird.
• What would MacGyver do?
• Innovate, don’t imitate.
• Collaborate like crazy.
Known collectively as our Methodology, these values have become the backbone of our culture obsession — a framework to provide our team members with direction and space to grow.
Our values help channel the frenetic atmosphere of innovation and quixotic spontaneity so vital to our success, into a mutual sense of purpose. To integrate them into our day-to-day operations and make them actionable, we’ve printed them on cards illustrating how each value translates into behavior. By creating an annual deck of cards bound by a key ring, rather than a standard sheet of paper, people can hang the values at their desks, and they are easier to share. Along with the right physical reinforcements–like our open-office floor plan–our values cultivate the kind of environment that inspires the real magic: those everyday individual actions that make our company flourish. Would our values work for you? Maybe. But adopting another company’s values is like letting someone else design your dream house or write your wedding vows. Establishing your values is your chance to turn yourself inside out and see what you’re really made of as a brand.
Excerpted from The Method Method by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry