Culture is always a much-debated subject. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management theory, allegedly said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. When aligned with strategy and leadership, a strong culture leads to positive organizational outcomes.
Ashley Goodall and Marcus Buckingham say, in their book Nine Lies About Work, that culture matters because it contributes to identity, processes, and vision. Besides that, culture is the answer that people give when they are asked “how is it to work there?”. Culture determines how hard people will work and for how long they’ll stay in your company.
Culture matters. However, culture also may be a complicated and confusing subject. Because of that, culture is too often relegated to HR alone and treated secondarily by the business. But it is possible to run a managed process to define the culture and it takes less effort than you imagine.
Before diving into how to do it, it’s worthwhile to understand what is culture.
What is culture?
Culture has some definitions:
- It is the knowledge system of a relatively big group of people
- It is the nurtured behavior, it is the sum of what a person learned, of the accumulated experience which is socially transmitted – or, to make it short – the behavior through social learning
- It is the lifestyle of a group of people – the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept (normally without thinking about them) and that is passed by through communication and imitation from one generation to the next
- It is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group’s skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions
The definitions made it clear that culture is always a collective phenomenon. Culture defines the social game: the cultural norms define what is accepted or not in the group and also direct it toward a shared purpose.
This is the first hint to manage the culture definition process. Values, direction, beliefs, and behaviors are keywords that translate well to strategic management concepts like vision, mission, and values. And it is also worth talking about principles.
Vision, mission, values, and principles
Any leader came across the challenges of goal setting or was questioned regarding the purpose clarity. In strategic management, the tools to work on these issues are the vision, mission, and values. I particularly like the definitions found in the book Product Roadmaps Relaunched:
- The vision is the outcome you seek in the long term. The vision tells us where we want to go
- The mission is the intent you have right now. It’s your purpose, it’s your guide toward the vision
- Values are beliefs and ideas that govern the behavior of a group of people. If the vision tells us where we want to go, the values help us to correct the course toward the vision
At N26 Brasil, we decided to have a set of principles for the Engineering culture. Principles are ideas or basic rules that explain or control how something must work.
Vision, mission, values, and principles. It seems we have enough elements to start working, right?
Define it collaboratively
If culture is a set of shared beliefs and myths, there is no better way to define it than collaboratively. My suggestion is to hold a workshop with clearly defined activities. Product management techniques and Agile facilitation techniques are useful for this. At least, identify the vision and values of your culture.
At N26 Brasil, we run this process on July 2021 when the Engineering team was only five people. We needed to create a strategy for the area and, for that, we needed to know what kind of culture we would like to nurture. Once the cultural elements were set, the roadmapping process got easier to do. Since then, our technical strategy has been aligned with our culture.
If you’re curious to know how to run a culture workshop, check the playbook I created: it is a step-by-step guide to run a process similar to the one we ran at N26 Brasil.
Document, share, integrate, and recognize
When Netflix shared its culture slide deck, it went viral. You should do the same. The first step is to define the culture. After it is done, create a document and let it easily findable for everyone at your company. To make it more useful, provide a brief description of each identified element of the culture: they will be useful to validate the behaviors and to provide examples to everyone.
However, a shared document is not the same thing as shared knowledge. Present the culture for every hire. Repeat the cultural elements on every occasion: from the All Hands to Daily meetings, explore them to make them shared and assimilated by everybody.
At N26 Brasil, the culture is presented to everyone during the onboarding sessions. Besides that, the culture document reading is incentivized in the 30-60-90 plan that we set for new hires when they join the Engineering team.
Lastly, integrate the cultural elements in your hiring process and use good examples from the day-to-day work to recognize the people’s contribution to the nurturing of the culture. There is no recipe for success, the building of your culture will depend on continuous care and attention.
N26 Brasil Engineering values
I highlight some of the values of our culture:
- Professionalism: we are trustworthy and define high standards of behavior and execution. We care about the work, people, customers, and users
- Pragmatism: we are pragmatic. We know when we reach a good enough solution preventing over-engineering and cargo cult programming
- Humility: no one knows everything. Every question is a learning opportunity. Seniority is no free pass to disrespectful behavior
- Collaboration: the N26 Brasil goals are more important than the individual goals. Teamwork triumphs over individual effort
- Diversity: we live in a diverse society and we’ll only be able to provide solutions for it with a diverse team
The Engineering culture at N26 Brasil is still being shaped. The team grew by 400% between September 2021 and January 2022. New features are being delivered and legacy systems are being replaced fastly. Even so, it is possible to see the values defined by that small team being said in the interviews, merged in the OKRs and roadmap, used to prioritize tasks, and in the day-to-day communication between people.
Live the culture and be an example
Any person acting as a leader (be it positional or not) must be an example of the organizational culture. As highlighted by David Anderson, the potential of an organization will always be limited by the maturity of its leadership:
An organization’s maturity is limited by its leadership maturity. Business outcomes and aspirations will always be constrained by culture and values.
A mature leader will always work to create alignment sense, unity, and shared purpose. A mature leader manages the culture and its identity. An immature leader is selfish, narcissistic, and manipulative. Mature leadership nurtures the culture and the identity of the organization.
Culture-building work is harsh and requires consistency and repetition. Setting the values and principles but not living them as a person in a leadership role is the first step to creating cynicism in the team.
The same is true for moments of drastic measures when some cultural elements are challenged: make it clear what is happening and why some trade-offs are required. The consistency in the way you act will pay off at these moments.
Did you stop to think about our culture today?
I am grateful to everybody who accepted to join the N26 Brasil Tech team (Data, Design, Engineering, Product). They accepted the challenge of changing how people deal with money. Special thanks to the participants of the culture workshop we held in July 2021: Antonio Spinelli, Diógenes Medeiros, Henrique Sloty, and Thiago Costa.
- Playbook: Culture workshop
- N26 Brasil Engineering: Culture, vision, values, and principles (Brazilian Portuguese)
- Jacob Engel, 2018. Why Does Culture 'Eat Strategy For Breakfast'?
- Boris Groysberg et al., 2018. The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture
- Ashley Goodall e Marcus Buckingham, 2019. Nine Lies About Work
- Gert Jan Hofstede et al., 2010. Cultures and Organizations
- Todd Lombardo et al., 2017. Product Roadmaps Relaunched
- Patty McCord, 2014. How Netflix Reinvented HR
- Reed Hastings e Patty McCord, 2009. Netflix Culture Deck
- David Anderson, 2018. First Who Then Why
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