The most important aspect of a healthy company culture and how to create it (even with no funding)
No mystery or surprise here, no dramatic reveal: it has been well documented (like Project Aristotle: Google researchers studied 180 teams to find out the
components of highly effective teams) that the single most important aspect of a healthy, successful organization (a startup - a company - a team) is psychological safety. Having culture that encourages psychological safety means that all team members know it’s ok to take risks and to be vulnerable in front of each other. “If I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.”
For the record, the four other aspects of successful teams that showed up in the Google research are:
Dependability — “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.”
Structure and Clarity — “Our team has an effective decision-making process.” Meaning — “The work I do for our team is meaningful to me.”
Impact — “I understand how our team’s work contributes to the organization’s goals.”
BUT, without psychological safety the other four don’t work and with psychological safety they usually take care of themselves.
Now, let’s not forget to define of organizational / company culture itself. My favourite definition, the most accurate based on my experience, is this: Culture is what people do when no one is watching and telling them what to do. For example, if a sales team gets an email, do they reply right away? Will they call a potential client, forward the message to someone else or just do nothing for a while?
Usually culture emerges organically or is impressed upon by the founder(s) and is managed, shaped or dealt with only when it becomes harmful or detrimental for a company (think Uber). But for us, as the founders of Djuno, setting a healthy culture was an imperative conscious choice from the very beginning. We’ve worked together before and we’ve experience the benefits of psychological safety inside our team. As we’re bootstrapping Djuno into existence, there is no budget for culture: no offsites, no trainers, no posters, no branded t-shirts or merch. We’re also all remote and spread across 3 continents.
Here’s what we did:
- We put together our “Rules of Engagement” document that defines our values, recommended and required behaviours and attitudes.
- We made sure everyone in the company has access to the document (it’s on our Confluence) and communicated that it’s a living document that should evolve as we evolve as a team (it’s in a permanent “live beta”, or “v0.9” state).
- Finally, and most importantly, we make sure every day that the founders adhere to these principles. People learn culture by observing how others behave, not by reading documents (especially if the example comes from the top). That’s it! We’re still figuring out things, learning to communicate and work with each other as our team grows. But the results have been encouraging so far in terms of both personal satisfaction and tangible deliverables (dev. time and velocity).
Here’s a copy of our “Rules of Engagement”. Maybe it will help or inspire you.
Djuno Rules of Engagement
V 0.9 (live Beta)
This is not our first rodeo. We’ve worked for many companies. We created our own companies. We had a lot of success and a lot of failures. We did a lot of things right and made a lot of mistakes.
One thing we’ve learned and all agree upon is that great companies don’t happen by accident, but are stubbornly created by great people. By this standard (the people), Djuno is already great company material and we want it to stay like this.
So, since we are a distributed, remote bunch, here are some ground rules for all of us operate under, our constitutions or “rules of engagement”. Everyone is encouraged to get to know this document, as it will make all of our lives easier.
This document will always be in “live Beta”, because we understand it will evolve with time. In a truly agile spirit, we think it’s better to release something useful, even if imperfect, as soon as possible, and improve as we go along.
OK, here are our rules / guidelines:
No slaves, all volunteers
We work on creating Djuno because we want to, not because we have to. We want to work with people who share this attitude, who care about the project or their team members or (ideally) both. If this is just a 9–5 job that you hate, please look for your passion elsewhere.
Equal opportunity for all
Life is not fair. People are different, have different talents and backgrounds. We are not pretending everyone is the same, but we make sure everyone has the same access to opportunities at Djuno. We don’t care about your nationality, religion, gender, age, formal education or anything else like that. We only care if you can create value. If you can, the sky is the limit. You’ll be given as much responsibility as you can handle and you’ll participate in the success we create (=money, in plain English…) proportionally to your contribution.
Also, to say it once, and get it out of the way: No gender, cultural, national, racial etc. biases and discrimination will be tolerated. Even for people who are brilliant, talented or in charge. We don’t work with assholes.
We’re a pack and we eat what we kill
This means we’re a startup, not a large enterprise or a government agency. We can only spend the money we earn. While not everybody hunts, we do not tolerate dead weight.
Anyone who wants to make more money should focus on how to create more value: bring more clients, eliminate inefficiencies, create better products, etc. As stated above, all valuable contributions will be noted and rewarded.
This also means we encourage people to make problems disappear: try solving it before escalating.
Communication is encouraged, noise isn’t
We prefer direct lines of communication. If there is something important you want to talk about with the CEO or anyone else, go for it! No need to ask anyone’s permission. However, the key word is something important. We don’t want to create noise, unnecessary emails or messages.
Everyone can make mistakes, but don’t make the same mistake twice
We all make mistakes, but it’s important to learn from them. No one will get punished for making an honest mistake, however 1) as soon as you discover the mistake you have to communicate it so we can think how to fix it. Hiding, covering up your errors or mistakes will not be tolerated. It’s bad to hear from your team that they screwed something up, but it’s infinitely worse to hear from your client that your team screwed something up… 2) don’t make the same mistake twice. This needs to be a learning opportunity. Repeating the same mistakes is dumb or malicious. Either way both are a problem.
Pride of ownership
We’re like the early pioneers on the western frontier. The opportunities are endless, but only if you want to stake your claim. This means you take ownership of your tasks and projects. Be proud of them, be proud of what you’re creating. If there are problems — solve them yourself if possible. This also means you won’t be controlled or closely supervised. (There are no factory workers and supervisors on the western frontier.) But pioneers are expected to be ethical and honest. If they break the rules or cheat, the sheriff will deal with them.
Finally, claiming your stake means being pro-active. Don’t wait for others to tell you what to do. If you see a task or an issue that needs solving — take it and run with it! Even if this means you’ll make a mistake or two. As mentioned above, no big deal as long you’ll fix your own mess and learn from the mistakes ;-)
Be nice, expect nice
We prefer to have an efficient culture, where people speak their minds and can be direct. But working remotely has its challenges. One of the challenges is that people don’t interact face-to-face, they don’t see the body language or the tone of voice. Something that might have been a joke can be interpreted as something mean. So, 1) be nice and extra mindful of language or cultural differences 2) expect nice. Don’t take everything personally, give others the benefit of the doubt.
Opinions are not facts
Every opinion is equally valid and therefore equally useless. Facts on the other hand, can be valid or invalid. Valid facts are useful. Valid facts always win arguments vs opinions. The person who is right (has the most valid facts) wins the argument. Even if this person is not in charge (not a COO for example). You are entitled to your opinion, but don’t get offended or surprised when it loses an argument against a valid fact.
It is not our job to make anyone happy
Please don’t think that we don’t care about your happiness or, even worse, we want to make you unhappy ;-). Not at all! We just recognize that when a group of people interacts or has to agree on a goal or course of action, someone will be unhappy. And in business, we decide to focus on creating success and making money and not on coddling everyone and making sure they are happy all the time. And sometimes directness and efficiency are more important that small talk.
“Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.” — this is a quote from Amazon.
We totally agree and just want to add that while thinking big, great leaders get shit done on a daily basis.