Culture Code anatomy: basic and additional structure blocks of a document that describes a company culture

Designing the first ever culture code at RealtimeBoard (now Miro), I wanted to make sure I have a clear image of what I am designing. Following our Culture as a Product framework, I’ve spent some time on research. One part of this research was the reverse-engineering of diverse culture-describing documents. Here is what I learned from it so far.

Here I’d like to share the basic structure of a Culture Code and give some examples.

Basic structure of a Culture Code

Since any Culture Code is based on company values, usually this list of values or guiding principles takes the central part of the document. However, there are few more blocks that repeat quite often and seem to be essential for the file to be useful:

  1. Bigger context
  2. Our definition of culture
  3. Why do we care about culture
  4. Core values / principles / behaviours

Let’s dive deeper into examples.

1. Bigger context

A solid Culture Code starts with some bigger and broader context. Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It reflects the environment where it evolves and is based on something bigger than itself.

In most cases, context block refers to a company mission and/or vision plus some reasoning behind them, like Patreon’s:

Source: Patreon’s Culture Deck, SlideShare

It can also refer to external context and trends, like the famous How Google Works presentation:

Source: How Google Works, SlideShare
Source: How Google Works, SlideShare

It can also go personal like PandaDoc’s and refer to the founder’s story and employee’s motivation to join the company:

Source: PandaDoc’s Culture Code, Google Docs

Also, it can be as much direct as a list of company goals:

2. Our definition of culture

Each company has its own definition of culture. Each Culture Code takes it as a hygiene norm to state what do we mean by term ‘culture’ here in our company. Interesting, the definitions vary.

3. Why do we care about culture

This part usually describes how a company explains the connection between culture and business. The explanations themselves might sound different, yet overall it comes to achieving business goals and helping minimize the transactional costs. If people share the same culture, they tend to achieve results faster, easier, better, or overachieve.

It can be tightly connected with business results focus:

Source: Netflix Culture (old version), SlideShare

It can also explain the value of attracting and retaining the right people:

Source: How Google Works, SlideShare
Source: HubSpot’s Culture Code, SlideShare

It also helps business to learn to let people go if they don’t fit the culture:

Source: The Untold Story of Buffer’s Values: Why We Created Them, and Why It Hurt

It can also connect both business goals and people happiness:

4. Core values / principles / behaviours

And finally, the core part of the Culture Code, the values. Some companies call them not values but principles or behaviors, some combine these three terms together in a structured system, similar to a competency model.

Source: Basecamp’s handbook, Github

Yet the essence is more or less the same: the core of a company culture consists of certain norms that each member adheres to.

These values, principles, norms or behaviors (let’s call them all ‘values’ for the sake of simplicity) usually get described with nouns, adjectives or adverbs:

  • We stand for… [list of nouns]
  • People in our company are… [list of adjectives]
  • How do we love to work here is…[adverbs]

No matter which language pattern is used, each value usually has at least a label and a description.

Labels can be as simple as nouns (e.g. honesty, results, freedom, creativity etc). They also can be given in a more descriptive way, like full sentences “We behave like this” or even idiom-like statements.

The Fool Rules

Also, the label gets complemented by examples, often in the form of a bullet list of things what it is and, sometimes, what it’s not.

Source: The Buffer Culture, SlideShare
Source: Basecamp’s handbook, Github
Source: A Voyage To Pluto, Memoria Visual Handbook

It’s also possible to explain a value with positive behavior and a negative one (it’s called a value destructor). This way of describing core values helps employees to clearly see the difference between what’s expected and what’s not tolerable in a company. Here is a vibrant example from PandaDoc’s Culture Code:

Source: PandaDoc’s Culture Code, Google Docs
Source: Big Spaceship Culture Manual

The best if core behaviors could be supported by specific examples of everyday company life. Here is, for instance, Patreon’s way to support the value they call ‘Respect your teammates’ time’ with simple tips on running a team meeting:

Values and behaviour principles could be also illustrated in a fun way, like Valve’s:

Let’s recap: basic building blocks of a company Culture Code are the bigger context, definition of culture, the reason why a company cares about culture, and the core values / principles / behaviours. If you are thinking of your own Culture Code, start with these.

Why not start with the core values only? Well, you can have it as an MVP, but the other three intro blocks ensure your values list gets grounded and clearly connected with the company’s context. They make it more understandable and useful.

Additional building blocks of a Culture Code

There are some simple additions to the basic structure, such as a table of contents. It might be a simple agenda or a detailed explanation, what is this document and why do we need it, what’s its structure and even a story about how this document got created.

What is this document

The document itself plays different roles in different companies, so it can be referred to as:

  • a culture code, “operating system that powers the company”
  • a manifesto, a company philosophy, a leadership stand
  • an employee handbook, used for new hires onboarding
  • a description of who we are and who we aspire to be (kind of visionary document).

Story behind Culture Code

It’s also common to mention how the document was created. It might be connected with the founders’ story (as mentioned in the example above), but not necessarily.

Source: The Buffer Culture, SlideShare

Simple agenda

As we can see in these Patreon’s and Netflix’s examples, there are more building blocks to a Culture Code. If a Culture Code serves as an employee handbook, it’s natural to include some rules, policies, and expectations people should be aware of, even if they are not the core part of the culture.

Why do we need this doc

A Culture Code existence is justified by the fact that people find it hard to articulate, validate and explain intangible things, such as values. As soon as they are put in words, they become manageable.

I personally love the explanation Basecamp gives in their handbook:

What else you can find in a Culture Code:

  • Rules, norms, policies, expectations (management, communications, spending etc)
  • Related processes (how we hire, fire and promote people)
  • Fun stuff / atmosphere / traditions
  • FAQ

Here are just some examples of many slides and pages related to these blocks:

A bigger part of additional pages in a Culture Code is allocated for related business processes, those much affected by company culture and usually important for new hires understanding.

Top-3 processes are:

  • Hiring
  • Promotion (how to get promoted)
  • Firing

There are usually other supporting people processes like:

  • Onboarding
  • Appreciation, rewards & recognition
  • Compensations & benefits
  • Team performance support (skip-level meeting at Patreon)
  • Learning & development (mindfulness training at Asana)
  • Feedback
  • Assessment
  • Sharing information (internal communication, external communication, incl. HR brand)

Other business processes affected might include:

  • Leadership & management practices and expectations
  • Core product development
  • External marketing
  • Finances & operations
  • Client policy

And of course, if a company culture supports this, you might find a lot of quotes, stories, metaphors, acronyms, questions-to-keep-in-mind, formulas in between. HubSpot’s Culture Code is quite famous for this:

Here are several examples I personally find worth mentioning.

Questions to ask yourself by Stripe:

Source: A quick guide to Stripe’s culture

Importance of hiring by Valve:

Source: Valve Handbook for New Employees

Feedback rules by Patreon:

The article mentioned in the first line is a really nice one, check it out: Feedback is a Gift

The full structure of a Culture Code

So if to conclude all the observations, the full list of a Culture Code building blocks looks like this:

1. Bigger context
1.1. External trends
1.2. Mission & Vision
1.3. Goals
1.4. Why have we founded the company
1.5. Why did you join the company
2. Our definition of culture
3. Why do we care about culture (how do we explain the connection between culture and business)
4. What is this document
4.1. Definition of the document
4.2. Why do we need culture to be written in words
4.3. Story how this document got created
4.4. Structure of the document
5. Core values / principles / behaviors
5.1. Values labels
5.2. Values descriptions
5.3. Behaviour examples: what it is, what it’s not
6. Rules, norms, policies, expectations
7. Related processes
8. Fun stuff / atmosphere / traditions
9. FAQ
10. Quotes, stories, examples of practices

Seems to be a bit too much to include all these points into a Culture Code, but this list can serve as a library of building blocks. Use the main ones, find your unique combination, invent your own blocks.

Thank you to Atlassian, Basecamp, Big Spaceship, Buffer, Google, HubSpot, Memoria Visual, Mindvalley, Netflix, PandaDoc, Patreon, Slack, Stripe, The Motley Fool, Valve, and many others for sharing your Culture Codes with the world. It’s inspiring to learn from you.

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