Paul Copplestone

Culture

Building a good culture is difficult. Most people think it’s a set of practices they can implement.

“Let’s do stand-ups every day, and go for a team lunch on the first Friday of every month.”

These activities will help but they are going to feel forced. A good way to understand culture is to substitute it with the word “belonging”.

When people feel like they belong you hear them say it “has a great culture”. This is essentially tribalism. A deep-seated need to belong.

How do you start building tribes?

The best way is through trivial spontaneity, which leads to exclusive and consistent behaviour. Yikes, what does that mean?

Imagine you’re bored, so you turn to the people next to you and ask “what is the most interesting fact you know?”. You have a toy car on your desk and that’s the prize for the most interesting fact. This is trivial spontaneity. The activity is completely meaningless and came out of nowhere. It isn’t a team-bonding exercise. There is no objective besides distracting you from your boredom.

The next day at 5pm you turn to the same people and tell them you want the chance to win back the toy car. Suddenly you’re doing it every day at 5pm. You’re telling rude facts because they’re funny. Others see you all having a good time but the activity belongs only to the small group. This is exclusive and consistent behaviour.

You now have a tribe, a feeling of belonging. Eventually you might start letting other people into the “fact of the day”. You have to start voting on who has the best fact. The activity becomes company-wide and people are researching the best facts before they turn up at 5pm. Everyone wants to win the toy car.

Or it could fizzle-out within a couple of days. That’s fine too.

Spontaneous activities are better when they’re created by non-managers. Managers should be on the look-out for opportunities to make trivial events into exclusive and consistent behaviour. Just make sure the activities require low effort for participation in the beginning.

Spontaneous activities don’t have to come from team members but they need to be there at the time of creation. If you’re calling a managers meeting to solve cultural issues then you’re doing it wrong.

Just like the real world however, tribalism is a double-eged sword. If the identities become too strong you have an us-vs-them situation. Tech-vs-operations, accounts-vs-sales.

I’ve found this doesn’t happen with the activities I’ve described. They are too trivial. The more absurd the activity, the safer it is to make it exclusive. If there’s a conflict it is usually related to work.

The opposite is true of manager-organised activities. If a company organises a lunch but only invites the tech team then it is completely fair for others to feel left out.

To build a good culture you should treat your company like an organism rather than an organisation. It’s always under a process of transformation. Let it grow on its own and make sure you’re feeding it with a healthy amount of spontaneity.