Values and Culture: A Chicken and Egg Scenario?

By Andrea Pollock, Talent Manager/Recruiter

What is company culture? There’s no doubt, based on the myriad articles written in recent years, that company culture is intensely important. Entrepreneur Magazine notes that culture is more important than ever. Organizations like the Association for Talent Development are referring to company culture as the most important job benefit. Still others believe that solid company culture is the key to creating deep-rooted employee engagement. According to Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends report, 87% of organizations cite culture and engagement as one of their top challenges, and 50% call the problem “very important.” There seems to be endless content written regarding the pivotal nature of culture to the success or failure to a company, but there doesn’t seem to be a succinct way to define exactly what culture is, and where exactly it comes from.

With all of this buzz around company culture and its importance, not only to obvious objectives like employee retention, but also to productivity and product quality, it’s important to note what culture is not. Working in the technology industry, people make outlandish assumptions about where culture comes from, and what it is. “You guys ride around on scooters, right? Even the CEO?” is one that gets tossed around quite often. When people think of company culture, they think of open offices, beanbag chairs, ping-pong and foosball, and, of course, the obligatory beer-fueled hackathons that last into the wee hours of the morning. This is not culture. These can be indicators of the culture, as outward manifestations of how people feel at work and their desires to participate in the workplace. Ad Age recently released an article called “Debunking Five Myths of Corporate Culture” in which they address the misconceptions of many employers who are trying to attract the millennial generation of talent by behaving like Silicon Valley startups.

While it’s easy to agree with much of what they state, they assert that employees defining company culture is a myth, and that may not always be completely true. Employees shouldn’t be tasked with defining company culture entirely. However, a vision of culture that is driven completely by upper management, divorced from the passions of the people who are the engine of the company, will surely not create the type of engagement that is seen in the most successful companies.

Last year, Smashing Ideas conducted a studio-wide workshop to determine what our values — as seen through the eyes of each and every employee — really meant, and a smaller core group of individual contributors spent weeks distilling the feedback we received into the core values that participants all felt encompass the collective identity of Smashing Ideas. This exercise was not an effort to discern how management felt that the personality of the company should be portrayed; it was an effort to hear the voices of the people who make up the company, and for them to be heard on what the culture and values of the company mean to them.

What emerged from the workshops and exercises were six core values. These values are what make our culture, how individuals choose to view our work, each other, and every person’s opportunities to experience growth and positive change, while effecting that for others around them.

At Smashing Ideas, we…

1. | Keep It Real: Because our diversity enhances our creativity.

One descriptor of who we are at Smashing Ideas that resonated with the majority was the word “authenticity.” The Keep it Real value calls each team member to action every day, to bring their authentic selves to work, and refrain from self-censorship in the name of conformity. By celebrating differences in perspective, we not only create a place where the individual can feel valued as a voice on the team, but we also celebrate the diversity that keeps us creating our best work…work that will truly speak to the needs of the user. Failing to recognize this as a core value leaves us vulnerable to group-think; calling it out enhances transparency in our culture, as well as an emphasis on humility, since the best idea can come from anywhere, including someone who doesn’t see things exactly as everyone else does.

2. | Paddle Out: Because we don’t wait for our ship to come in.

Self-directed initiative and a bias towards action were another common thread in discussions between different internal business groups at SI. There was even a reference to the business culture in The Netherlands that was thrown out as a descriptor of the collective mentality: “More Dutch,” also known as “More walk, less talk.” Everyone wanted to capture the ideological importance placed on being doers and makers, as opposed to just a design firm. That’s not to say that great design isn’t important, but it was pivotal to place an emphasis on externalizing brilliant thoughts, which, as a rule, is woven into the very fabric of our design processes. Everyone, from senior leadership to the most junior team member, is responsible for actually producing deliverables, whether they are mock-ups, wires, code, or other measurable results. We don’t just say… we do.

3. | Stay Curious: Because we thrive in what could be.

Arguably, our whole industry has a myopic laser-focus on what could be; or at least they should. In boiling down the essence of shared values, the groups at Smashing Ideas held another commonality: a reverence for the virtue of insatiable curiosity and a healthy sense of awe. Not necessarily a curiosity that is satisfied to keep its head in the clouds for days on end, but a curiosity that behaves like an unquenchable thirst, always seeking to learn more, and knowing that a deeper understanding is right around the corner. A deep-seated curiosity is not only one of the criteria by which we identify a solid culture fit at Smashing Ideas, but it’s also a prerequisite to truly innovative thought. No one has ever disrupted an industry by thinking, “well, I guess we know everything there is to know about this topic… What now?”

4. | Create with Heart: Because magic comes from loving what we do.

Passion, as a word, is losing its meaning. Too many companies equate being passionate about work with having no boundaries; no semblance of work-life balance. Denoting the importance of creating with heart was a conscious decision to call out the value to be found in actually loving what you do… and in turn, doing what you love. The group felt that the word “magic” was important to include because everyone has, at one point in time, been completely shocked at what they were able to produce when they dropped into a flow, and time seemed to stand still in the face of the furious devotion they had to the task at hand. That state is what we aim to reproduce on a daily basis. Some days we’re closer than others, but it’s always fun to surprise others with the inspired work that results.

5. | Ride or Die: Because blazing new trails is better as a team.

Collectively, there was no shortage of sentiment that the success or the failure of a project is the result of the sweat equity of the team as a whole. A widely held view within different teams at Smashing Ideas was that we either succeed or fail as a team, and that each of us as individuals owe it to our team to make sure that our efforts meet any and all standards that we would hold others to. No one wants to feel like the weak link. Our principles of Motivational UXTM call out a sense of belonging as being essential to creating engagement with a product, and we believe that a sense of belonging on a team creates the type of environment that fosters the greatness that we know we’re capable of as a collective. There is a common, sincerely held belief that the whole is unequivocally more than the sum of its parts.

6. | Raise the Fun Flag: Because joy is contagious.

Joy — as opposed to happiness or cheerfulness — is not the result of things going the way we would like, nor is it a settled satisfaction with what we have in front of us. Joy is less a result of favorable conditions, and more of a deliberate choice; a decision to see the upside and an excitement about the possibilities that lie within our current situations. Joy is also a commitment to recognize that what we are called to do every day can be an amazing journey, no matter how seemingly banal. When we find the joy in what we’re doing, we not only enjoy our days more, but the care with which we attend to our work is truly inspired, and we consistently produce better quality than we would through a lens of resignation. Fun is serious business when it comes to being our best.

Do these values dictate culture, or is being steeped in a culture the way that we found to call these attributes values? Culture certainly can’t be manufactured; there’s no way to force people to be genuine in their adherence to specific values without them seeing the merit in those values themselves. If values don’t speak to the people who are supposed to embody them, they’re about as useful as motivational posters on the walls of a corporate office from the 1990s (yay synergy!). Likewise, cohesive values can’t thrive in a frenetic environment where there are competing priorities, and no sense of company identity. A company with a strong identity and “culture” is generally able to clarify succinct values, and those values inform how their citizens carry themselves and interact with others on a daily basis.

When people talk about the importance of hiring for “Culture Fit,” it’s arguable that they could truly mean that they want to create an environment where the values that they hold dear are vitally important to each individual they bring on board. Perhaps culture and values have to be identified and galvanized simultaneously; or maybe it’s all a matter of knowing who you are at the core.


Originally published at smashingideas.com on September 21, 2016.

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