You never know what is underneathWhen you’re buying a car, you’ll make a decision on whether you need a family van, an off-road or a racing car. If you’re buying a racing car, except from pure aesthetic reasons, you’re planning to compete in a race. It’ll makes sense to choose a right racing car and fine tune it to a type of a race you’re planning to get into. Different types of races will require different tuning considerations like a choice of wheels, oils, shocks, etc… But if you’re really in a tight competition, you’ll find yourself fine tuning each and every part of the car without leaving anything out starting with engine tuning and ending with the car aerodynamics. But, after all, having an amazing car will not help you win the race without an awesome driver. To get the best result you’ll need to create the best fusion of the driver expertise and the car capabilities. Different drivers have their own preferences for tune-up. Only, if you’ll treat the car and the driver as a unified system and not as separate parts, you can get ahead in the race.

This analogy directly applies to the business. If you’ll be honest with yourself you’ll admit that you’re, in fact, in a race to win. To win markets and outperform your competition. The same way, to achieve the best results and to fine tune your business organization to be the most optimal and effective organism, you need to put everything on the table. You should not be afraid to fine tune each and every part starting with the business processes and ending with the people and the culture. The same way the processes may be well-suited or not well-suited for the current situation and context of your business, the culture may be well- or not well-suited for the needs of your organization. As well as the culture may be good at the initial stages of your company but not well suited when your company matures (by Jeff Patton).

Based on the needs of your organization leadership will eventually find itself in need to optimize to achieve a desired goal. Different organizations, for obvious reasons, will have different goals. Some will need to optimize for predictable delivery, some for velocity of generation of new features, etc… The decisions of what to change in the organization will always support the eventual goal of your business, but it is not always obvious what to change and how to change it when it relates to culture.

I hope we’ve established in my Culture of Experimentation article, that the culture of experimentation is the key to figure out what to do and how to do things. Why not to continue with this ideas and not to expand it to other areas of our businesses and organizations – should the experimentations be confined only to the product lines and business? Why not to ALL of the aspects of our organizations? Think about this: if we’re mostly wrong with out assumptions, so why do we think that we know what company culture is right and why do the leaders assume they know how to build the right culture?

Experimentation has started to be heavily used to filter out the noise of guesses. Some companies are starting to apply such approach to everything in their organizations. This approach is starting to take over the main stream in the form of the Lean Startup movement.

Unfortunately many of the organizations fail to apply experimentation, in fact, to literally EVERYTHING. The main portion of the organization is neglected from experimentation – the Culture. The culture is this fuzzy thing that leaders and managers know very little about (Leading Change by John P. Kotter) but it is what everyone likes to talk about.

I’ve seen organizations, where changes in the culture are discussed on the leadership level. In many cases the conversations concentrate around priorities – should we first build a product and a customer-base and, when everything is done, we’ll probably pay attention to the culture. Most of us know that investing into our own velocity is, in fact, increases production, velocity and quality of the results (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey). I see the organizations that understand the idea of investing into their own velocity so they invest into creation of automation, learning new technology stacks, adopting agile practices. But, somehow, I almost barely see that the leadership understands and realizes that the core inhibitor of the velocity improvements is an incorrect behavior. What I notice is that leadership is either doesn’t feel comfortable to touch culture or worse – they overconfident that they sure what needs to be done. In many cases leadership don’t know what to do and where to start, yet they mention culture almost every day – “we want the culture to be such and such” or “we have a great culture and we hire to fit“.

I’m an absolute fan of the organizations that went all the way and have documented and published their culture values like Netflix, Amazon, Hubspot, Spotify (part 1 and part 2), etc… Having culture values out in the open enforces and builds common grounds across all the aspects of the organization starting with the decisions made out in the field, affecting the way how the customers are treated and ending in the way of how interviews are conducted and who gets hired or fired.

The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.
— Netflix Culture Deck

But how did they get to that place where they knew exactly who they are and how did they narrowed down to the culture they wanted? They obviously didn’t start from the known place, but gradually evolved and found what worked for them. They’ve tried along the way different approaches and narrowed down on the ones that worked and shed the ones that didn’t. They EXPERIMENTED with the culture intentionally or intuitively.

The report from Microsoft, I’ve mentioned in my Culture of Experimentation article, shows the staggering statistics of when we’re right and when we’re wrong. In our industry organizations have started to adopt initial experimentation in building software products, yet only a handful few understand and have embraced the same experimentation approach to the rest of the business and especially to the culture of their organizations.

Those who dared to question the status quo of the culture have achieved tremendous success which is threatening to trigger a fundamental shift in the industry, yet people are missing the point that their success was not in the fact that they found a better way of doing things. Their success can be contributed solely to the fact that they fully embraced the culture of experimentation, challenged and questioned EVERYTHING. They went against the gut feeling and against the established traditional corporate culture and achieved totally unexpected and sometimes totally non intuitive amazing results.

I hope Culture of experimentation and the experimentation with culture will become a de facto approach for modern business.

The most important and visible outcropping of the action bias in the excellent companies is their willingness to try things out, to experiment.

There is absolutely no magic in the experiment…
But our experience has been that most big institutions have forgotten how to test and learn. They seem to prefer analysis and debate to trying something out, and they are paralyzed by fear of failure, however small.
— Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence

Those who have realized the power of experimentation went further. They have taken these ideas forward and made totally logical conclusions that they need to apply experimentation approach to everything that they have control over. They figured out that people are the ones that, in fact, do the work. The quality of their ideas and their work performance is directly correlated with their surrounding and with the culture of their environments. There are thousands of factors that affect people’s performance and the results they produce – the mood, the diet, communications levels, etc… It is a known fact that our human biology is tightly coupled with the state and quality of our mental health. Better sleep and healthier diet, calm and not stressful environment create a great working place.

Only selected few have achieved great results in experimentation with the culture. It takes a lot of guts to admit that you don’t know much about how the final culture should look like and you’re opening it for discussion and change. It takes a lot of courage to not to be afraid to fail and to try different things. This is possible only in the non-blaming and fail-friendly environments. Environments where executives are making it safe to ask questions and to fail. Where leaders constantly and actively priming for feedback.

“We Aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else”
— Daniel Ek (CEO of Spotify) talk

As a great example, Spotify has defined that they value Failure Recovery more than Failure Avoidance. It is totally amazing to see what this company has been able to achieve in such a short period of time.

So where do we start?

  • Start by following the leaders in this “experimentation culture” and mostly try to cultivate the blameless experimentation-friendly environment. Admit that we’re mostly wrong about our assumptions and be open to try different ideas.
  • Realize that people are really bad at estimating their own abilities and make it safe to fail. Without failing you can’t experiment. Remove fear of failure and follow Derek Sivers advise – “If you’re not failing you’re not learning” (“Why you need to fail” TED talk)
  • Make it safe to ask the most avoided question – “why?”. A lot of people hate it and get offended by it. They feel threatened and challenged. The question that challenges the current assumptions should not be taken personally. It helps people to learn a lot of new things even about what are those proverbial assumptions in the first place.
  • Create nurturing environments for experimentation (see my article).
  • Don’t be afraid to take on unexplored challenges and try bold ideas for culture changes. Without radical ideas you can’t achieve fundamental shifts, but don’t feel bad if they’ll not work for you. Don’t give up and try more.

And remember:

  • Test early, test often
  • Most experiments fail so “experiment often”
  • A failed experiment is not a mistake
  • Try radical ideas
  • Document your culture values and make it company-wide known
  • Build community inside your organizations and contribute outside

“Invest in your people and your ability to ask questions, not your current answers. Your current answers are wrong, or they will be soon.”
Etsy CTO

Experiment or become extinct!

What are you doing in your organizations to build a better culture?