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Culture is too important to leave to chance

Culture must be taken as seriously as strategy. It is equally tangible, equally impactful, and needs to be deliberately designed and cultivated.

Portrait of Maria Campbell
Maria CampbellThursday 16 September 2021
"Anyone who wishes to keep a swarm of bees on a desirable course is better off tending the flowers in the meadow, not drilling every bee in turn."
- Zygmunt Bauman

In tech companies, company culture has often been conflated with having a ping pong table and beer on tap. But over time this conversation is maturing; we’re collectively coming to understand company culture as something more than perks. This shift is positive, but challenging: it makes company culture more meaningful and useful, but a lot less tangible. Culture can sometimes feel a little mystical, unknowable or uncontrollable. It’s tempting (and easy) to think of culture as something that just happens, and all we can do is hope that it works for us.

But culture is far too important to leave to chance.

Culture in the modern workplace

Our culture is tangible. It is the values that we share, and the behaviours we adopt. It is the shared elements that set the standards for how we perceive, believe and act when we’re working together.

It is our culture that determines whether we can provide more than just money to the people who choose to work with us‍—‌and that determines who we can hire and who stays with us. It is our culture that defines what the working experience will be like for every one of the people who choose to come along on that company-building journey with us. Our culture shapes how we produce work, which shapes what products and services we can put into the world and what impact we can have on our customers and broader society.

Culture must be taken as seriously as strategy. It is equally tangible, equally impactful, and needs to be deliberately designed and cultivated.

At Griffin, we think of our culture as our most important asset. We’ve consciously designed culture, by articulating the values and behaviours that are core to how we’ll achieve our mission.

Being intentional about culture

Our external culture page describes the values and behaviours that make up culture at Griffin. We’ve embedded each of these in every element of the journey people take when they choose to work at Griffin. Our culture manifests through our day to day interactions and decisions.

This starts from the very beginning: our culture is enshrined on our company webpage, so is visible when someone first encounters Griffin, and is shared and centred in our potential future hires' minds through our job posts.

We evaluate potential Grifflings' alignment with our values, their preferred ways of working and their adaptability to our core behaviours throughout the interview process, including in a dedicated culture-focussed interview session. By designing and structuring this interview deliberately, we can evaluate what actually matters to us, rather than merely whether the candidate gets on well in an unstructured conversation. This session is no less important than interviews that assess the candidate's technical aptitude: we will not hire someone if they have opposing values to ours, regardless of how skilled and experienced they are.

When we extend an offer of employment, we share our internal culture portal to help candidates make an informed decision; and after signing an employment contract, we continue to reinforce culture.

A new Griffling's induction process includes a dedicated conversation on culture with our founders, as well as subscribing to the Griffin Code.

We refer back to our values and core behaviours in everything: from how we capture potential conflicts of interest to how we think about feedback, how we run meetings to the way we run social activities and build internal community.

The impact of investing in culture

An explicitly designed and documented culture supports our efforts to craft inclusive, effective teams with a high sense of psychological safety, belonging and community.

Our culture is a core reason why most of our team decided to join us, and one of the reasons why so many of our team are proud to work here‍—‌with an average of 92% of Grifflings saying they agree or strongly agree with this sentiment in our anonymous internal employee surveys.

This concrete, defined culture enables us to bring together a wide range of people from very different backgrounds. Instead of making snap judgments about someone’s suitability for Griffin, based on our cognitive biases, we're able to design a series of interviews that evaluate cultural alignment in a repeatable, consistent, structured way.

This cultural investment builds mutual respect and reduces negative conflict. It means we know that we share certain core values with our coworkers; we know what to expect from one another about how we work and what we prioritise. This makes conflict more positive and simpler to resolve, because these conflicts aren’t coming from deeply-held, unarticulated, opposing values, but from a disagreement in how best we fulfil the values and aims that we share. It’s easier and safer to challenge one another because we’ve all subscribed to the same thing.

Investing in a positive culture also lays the groundwork for serving our customers better. Instilling these values and behaviours sets us up to be more empathetic to customer pain points, and to build products and features that solve genuine problems. A foundation of psychological safety and supportive, respectful challenge helps us ensure that every voice is heard, so we can approach problems from all angles and deliver the optimal result.

And taking this approach to culture helps lay the foundations for scale. One question I hear a lot in fast-growing startups, from interview candidates and early employees, is how we maintain culture as we grow.

The simple answer is to set direction early, and to keep deliberately working to embed it everywhere.

Deliberately cultivating our core values and behaviours helps us to use our culture as a powerful force for good, both now and in the future. When you leave it to chance, you end up where we started this post: drilling every bee through rules and damage-control, rather than tending to the wildflowers to help everyone make the best decisions.