Deliberately Building a Culture

Chris & Sean Agile
Oct 4, 2016 · 3 min read

In September we were fortunate enough to attend the Spotify Culture & Methods Conference in NYC. This event brought together minds from some of the most reputable corporate cultures such as Zappos, Pivotal Labs, Soylent, and of course the hosts, Spotify.

We attended hoping to get a glimpse into these companies and see what it is that differentiates them from most. Is there something special about the people they hire or is it a particular way they structure the company?

A different kind of language

Something that struck us whenever we’ve met folks from Pivotal Labs (who affectionately refer to themselves as Pivots) is how they consistently describe their decisions and behaviours in the context of the values of the organization — for example, “we value exploration” is a phrase we heard frequently from them. They do this with such remarkable consistently and ease. When we had a chance to ask Paul Sullivan on this, he explained Pivots like to “go meta” about their own culture.

By vocalizing their values, they become intentional and transparent about how they make decisions. This reinforces and ingrains these decisions at every level of the organization. But who initiated this and how did these values become embedded in the first place? We suspect this was no chance, but the deliberate actions of leaders.

In the words of Netflix: “values are what we value”. How do we mindfully craft organizations whose values are more than trite words on the wall?

A different kind of organization

In 2004, the Department of Sociological at Eastern Michigan University performed a study of healthcare organizations to investigate how organizational culture impacts quality of care. The results of this study identified three distinct organizational cultures, known as Westrum’s Typology of Organizational Cultures:

Westrum’s Typology of Organizational Cultures (

What these three types of organizations have in common is they are filled with well meaning and intelligent people. Nobody sets out to create a Pathological or Bureaucratic organization.

What is it that smart, well-meaning people DO to end up creating for themselves of Bureaucracy, or worse? And what would they do differently to produce a Generative organization?

A different kind of leader

We believe this is possible, and we believe it is the domain of leaders. We believe it is in the actions of leaders at all levels that shape the values of an organization. We believe that one of the first steps in building a deliberate culture is being mindful and aware of the many micro-decisions people make every day and how they’re influenced by their environment.

Something we go back to frequently is this article by Lt. Gen Robert B. Brown and Col. Robert M. Taradash: Humility: A Mission Command Essential.

A humble leader creates a culture of disciplined initiative by underwriting risk and supporting bold action

How does a leader underwrite risk? By supporting the actions of those they lead and taking responsibility for mistakes and failures.

To go beyond a culture of personal accountability and local optimization and to arrive at a place where decisions are value driven, it must start with the leaders.

What are the first steps you can take to create this culture?

If you want value driven decisions, what are you willing to give up?

These are the types of questions that drive us, and one’s we plan to continue exploring.

Chris & Sean Agile

Written by

Agile philosophers, programmers, and fathers. Musings on leadership, lean product management and technology.

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