Scaling Culture 3: *How* To Keep It From Going Wrong


PIZZA AND PING PONG, PLEASE
For a while I’ve attempted to fight the misconception that culture is simply pizza and ping pong. Ancillary benefits like these are not the whole picture, but they do play a role. In a framework I co-authored outlining the components of company culture I found where perks become useful, and it is exactly how companies can overcome relationship decay.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RITUALS
Now that we know that relationships begin to weaken somewhere between 50 and 150 people, how should leaders of growth organizations keep colleagues more tightly connected through bouts of early growth? Rituals. A ritual is a recurring group activity designed to strengthen relationships. People organize them amongst friends (poker night) and family (thanksgiving dinner) because it gives us an opportunity to connect and share. And it feels good. The result of these get-togethers is a stronger bond, and companies have an opportunity to foster purposeful connections through rituals to counteract the relationship challenges of rapid growth.

Leadership can experience relationship decay as well. It isn’t as obvious because they are surrounded by a purposefully small group of executives and possibly lead a small team. All the same they lose touch with the who’s and the what’s of their organization. A popular example of trying to solve for this is when management consultants organize a day for the CEO to spend time in the field with customers. Just as peers need to stay connected to each other, so do leaders.

THE FOUR TYPES OF RITUALS
There are many types of rituals. Some led from the top, some employee driven. They can be company wide, or a get together for two. The only requirement is that they provide an opportunity to create or strengthen relationships. Each has its strengths and challenges.

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1. Explicit Large Group Rituals

Team building. Twenty beans says you thought holiday party. Those are great, but there are many ways to strengthen relationships company wide. Lets think outside the punchbowl. Early in my career I worked for a global design agency that always threw an amazing summer picnic. This all-fun no-work offsite went a long way toward breaking down barriers between departments and creating new relationships that transcend tenure, but infrequent budget busters aren’t the only option. Adaptive Path/Capital One hosts Tea Time every Friday afternoon at 3:30. (Don’t be fooled, the tea cart is filled with beer and gin.) I happened to be there for one of these low-key end-of-the-week celebrations. This particular Friday the conference room was the scene of a fierce Rock Band tournament. They had all the peripheral instruments and it was awesome. I still think about the power this ridiculously fun and simple ritual had. Explicit large group rituals can even be asynchronous if you get creative. At Zappos they set a stage in the cafeteria with a bar stool and speakers for impromptu open mic lunches. If it is company sponsored, and reaches a lot of folks, the ritual falls into this quadrant.

WHAT YOU NEED
+ A great idea that provides lots of opportunities for mingling
+ A dedicated, possibly significant, budget
+ The commitment to do it regularly

2. Explicit Small Group Rituals

Relationships can be built on a smaller scale, of course. A company sponsored sports team is a classic ritual in this category. New hire coffee with the CEO or manager is also a terrific way to connect those of different departments and rank. One FinTech startup here in San Francisco hosts regular lunch and learns where employees are encouraged to sign up to share a skill or interest. Cooking is most popular, but anyone can teach anything. These have proven a great way for folks to connect around topics that interest them. Look for opportunities to attract smallish groups of people who want to be there so they are open to new ideas and new people. Caution: requiring everyone to get together to learn the new time tracking system doesn’t count.

WHAT YOU NEED
+ Commitment to the ritual, so the day-to-day doesn’t knock it off the list
+ A dedicated, modest budget
+ A way to communicate why and how this is happening

3. Implicit Small Group Rituals

Implicit rituals are those that happen without management instigation. These are the small group behaviors that bloom organically. The regular lunch. The afternoon coffee. Groups of two’s and three’s are a common size for these to start, but it doesn’t mean they can’t grow. I know of one startup that supports a small group that likes to play music by setting aside a small office in which they can rehearse. The challenge with implicit small group rituals is that they can become insular—folks usually associate with those they know. Management should encourage teams to expand their circle and invite others to join them for coffee, a grilled cheese, or to rock out. If leadership can identify these naturally occurring rituals, they should do everything they can to support them.

WHAT YOU NEED
+ An ear to help find these otherwise invisible rituals
+ A willingness to support, and the restraint to not interrupt
+ A way to encourage others to participate

4. Implicit Large Group Rituals

These are rituals that naturally spring from the culture and reach many people. I love the story of a massive engineering firm back East who with instigation of one charismatic employee, started a daily jeopardy challenge that has brought everyone within earshot a quick opportunity to engage in a playful morning ritual. It began with just two cube mates, but has grown to a once a week trivia tournament held in the common space to accommodate everyone interested. It’s regular, light hearted, and fosters the kind of banter that naturally strengthens relationships. Implicit Large Group events are the queen of rituals: they are powerful because the creators feel ownership and enable the greatest cross-sampling of people. Bonus! These tend to be less expensive than the explicit large group, but just as effective.

WHAT YOU NEED
+ Charismatic peer leader to initiate
+ An eye to see the opportunity
+ A willingness to support, and the restraint to not interrupt

What Every Growth Organization Needs
Relationship decay has been around since our primate ancestors began hunting in tribes, its the blistering growth startups experience that intensifies its symptoms and reveals its importance today. Growth organizations have to navigate too many challenges of which culture is just one. But just like data analytics in the 2000’s, managers, leaders, and executives need to turn serious attention toward rituals, and invest in strengthening the connective tissue of their organization as it grows. What in the past has may have been seen as simply perks and frivolous banter may turn out to be the secret to success.