Why is Culture equally important for Human Evolution and your Company?

When I was in college I would more than often scoff at the notion of the idea of company culture.

All those missions, visions and values sounded a lot of kumbaya thinking. Don’t get me wrong. I would think that they had their worth (on some organizations) but overall I always believed that these things were a reflection of a competitive advantage that a company had and that enabled them to care about culture. In short words, if the company was booming in profits it was ok to worry about these things; if not, what a waste of priorities.

And boy, was I wrong…

Culture & Evolution

My Old Self: “Wait what? What does Organizational Culture has to do with Evolution Júlio?”

My New Self: “It seems that culture is an impressive sort of technology we developed during our first periods as a species!”

My Old Self: “Oh boy…”

My New Self: Bear with me!

Yuval Noah Harari, on his book Sapiens poses the question of why from all species in the world we were the ones to be able to succeed so rapidly? And you might think that 70.000/30.000 years is not so “quick” but looking back to the accumulated Earth’s history and its species you could say that Sapiens were the most quickest “startup” to dominate the world.

But why? What was the reason for that success? As the author describes, neanderthals or the chimpanzees or other types of primates were far stronger than our big headed ancestors. Not to mention other predators that were bigger, quicker and deadlier than us.

As the author describes it, there was a revolution that changed the rules of the game: the cognitive revolution. This revolution enabled our species to communicate in a way that was never done before by any other. While other species were only capable of talking about things in the immediate or present we evolved to a stage where we could not only talk about the physical world in the past and future but as well complete imagined realities. Sapiens developed the ability to talk about things it never touched, smelled or seen. Such things as religions, myths, fantasies (or cultures) were and are an ability that we alone as species detain.

Why is this important? Well it turns out that this type of bio-tech is extremely important for cooperation in large numbers. Other animals can forge the bindings of cooperation but they are capped. Chimpanzees, for example, are able to form groups but no bigger than 50 and even humans using only personal relationships are capped around 150 (even with Facebook nowadays the ability is around 350). Why? Because you are capped in time to acquire, know and maintain your relationships, or in other words to develop and maintain the trust needed for cooperation.

Its through shared belief that you can get more people to cooperate. If we believe in the same thing I can trust you will act in the same accordance. If you and me (let’s say in Medieval Europe) believe the pope has indeed spoke to God and called for a holy crusade we will join forces in the Holy Land. If we believe that the lines someone draw on a map and called it a country are real we can cooperate to defend our homeland. If you and me believe a piece of paper with people imprinted on them is worth something I’m able to trade other things for it with you.

The idea is that if we trust on each other on the fundamental and imaginary blocks that we invent, we can build on top of it and develop our cooperation further on the real world.

From large hunting parties to large empires and finally to a global world it was the competitive advantage of Sapiens developing social constructs and communicating them that it got us here!

When you to come to think of it, and the author plays around this many times, it was our ability to think of imagined realities and constructs that enabled us to conquer the physical reality.

Just like the examples before, it’s nothing more of a social construct and communication tool of its own. It’s not a fundamental truth (if there is one…). It’s a set of principles or direction that its shared (or should be) between the members of the organization in order to enable them to agree on specific fundamentals and give them the ability to make decisions on their own according to those fundamentals.

As a company grows, this construct/culture becomes harder to maintain. Especially because until a certain point you could count that people would just trust you and everything would be fine. Why not? They all knew you right? Though as the pace starts to accelerate and the number of people starts to grow this personal interaction becomes unsustainable. Much like the chimpanzees, you’re capped.

In order to scale, you will need to build and rely on a shared belief, a critical mission, a set of values and principles that both you and your organization believe in. This is fundamental to build and maintain the necessary trust for cooperation. Failing to do so will consume most of your time in communication and hampering significantly your progress.

“In every human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust” — Ben Horowitz.

As I was trying to find more about culture I stumbled once again on the teachings of Ben Horowitz. He has an amazing talk about culture that you should definitely listen to.

The objective of the talk is not so much as to define culture itself but otherwise to explain its importance and how to make the necessary changes if you want to revotionalize your company. Ben actually says at the beginning all the great CEO’s that mentored him said that culture is really important but none of them could define it or explain it right.

He defines it as the underlying criteria for your important decisions in the company and that it manifests in the following ways:

  1. The Collective Behaviour of everyone in the organization
  2. It’s what people do when left to their own devices
  3. It’s the Organization’s way of doing things

It really gets down to one thing: it’s what your people are doing when you are not looking. And guess what? That’s 99% of the time. Seems a good investment to make in a company.

Don’t be a Chimp or Neanderthal 🙈— invest on culture and just like our species you might end up conquering the world(s).

I enjoy solving problems in a fast, impactful and measurable way.