Understand Your Company: What’s one thing that anyone can do without question?

The answer shows what a company’s culture really supports

Today’s startups are intent on preaching a message about their culture, mission, goals, and identity. But how they actually work is not always the same as the official message.

So I’m always looking for ways to understand the company I work for (or run!). I think I’ve come up with one question that helps me think about what’s really important to a company. Here it is:

What’s one action that anyone in the company can always do that will always be approved and will never be questioned?

One answer is the classic chestnut, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM products.” (The lesson being that subcontracting a project to a reputable firm is always OK.)

Looking back at the companies I’ve worked for and around since 1999, I see a range of actions that satisfy the question.

The Launcher!

The most extreme universally acceptable action was at a startup who aspired to launch dozens of sub-companies under under one roof. In less than a month, someone imagined and launched branded dial-up internet service. For most companies, this would be a big deal! But not for this company.

The CEO praised the people who made it happen, and encouraged every employee to do something similar the next month. It didn’t matter that none of the company’s previous products had anything to do with dial-up internet service.

Their answer to the one question was “launch a new product.”

The Craftspeople

My sister in law had a house built. As often happens, the project was a year behind schedule and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the original stated budget.

But the general contractor’s implicit answer to the one question was still “craftsmanship, always craftsmanship.”

It didn’t matter that everyone involved with the project was losing money, or that everyone should have moved on to another project by now. The lead carpenter would still spend hours on the belt sander, ensuring that every single piece of trim fit perfectly and that you could barely fit a piece of paper between the joints.

Their mission was to always do superlative work, no matter the consequences.

The Reorganizer!

A friend works at a small consulting company. They aren’t hiring many people, but it’s clear that the one thing that will never be questioned is “reorganize your department.”

Every department reshuffles at least every other quarter. Every year (or more often), the entire company reorganizes. No one ever asks “is this a good idea?” or “did we learn anything the last time we reorganized?” or “could we do it better such that we wouldn’t have to do it so often?”

I doubt that the company’s mission is to operate like a Rubik’s cube, but it’s what they do.

The Jig Maker

In college I worked for an aircraft R&D shop that operated out of a hangar on the side of a small county airport.

Half of my job was disassembling parts that didn’t work to see if we could reuse them for the next prototype. The other half of my time provided the answer to the one question: “Build a quality jig.” (A jig is a custom tool or scaffold used to fabricate other parts.)

They recognized that a good jig would be used to build 1,000 parts. But if the jig was incorrect, all the parts would be incorrect, too.

So the thing that anyone could do — and spend any amount of time on — was to measure, plan, cut, and drill the most precise, reliable jig possible. Not a bad idea!

But should we?

Once you’ve asked (and answered) this question for a few companies, it’s worth asking “is that the right thing?” Once you know what it is, try asking “Should that unobjectionable action continue to be unobjected to, or should it be questioned/learned from/evaluated/occasionally turned down?”

But if that thing matches your company’s stated culture, mission, goals, and identity, then maybe you’re doing it right!