5 culture hacks I’ve learned from
my first month at Pivotal Labs


Do the right thing. Do what works. Be kind.

Nine words compose the cultural tenets at Pivotal Labs.

This brevity exemplifies our philosophy. As supporters of the Agile Manifesto, we value a no-nonsense approach that has enabled efficient execution since 1989. (1989!)

How does this translate to life on the floor? Practices enable principles. After one month at Labs, I’ve observed specific practices that have evolved from 26 years of experimentation.

1. Hire for empathy.

Everything begins here.

Just like “culture,” design thinking has emerged as a buzzword in the blogosphere. Everyone should think like a designer, goes the saying. [1], [2]

To instill design thinking in the culture, you need to bring in people who can understand others and communicate well. Why?

Empathy drives design.

At Labs, we explicitly hire for empathy.

PMs, devs, designers, HR — all pivots are screened for empathy, which appears on our hiring checklist. This hiring practice enables thorough, thoughtful, and kind conversations every day.

Pivots seek to understand, then to be understood.

2. Prioritize communication.

All companies value communication. But prioritizing communication means allotting time towards it. And in a consultancy that bills by the hour, time can be calculated to the exact dollar.

Pivotal practices pairing. This was traditionally for two developers working on two monitors plugged into one computer, but now, PMs and designers often pair. Cross-functional pairing, in particular, enables closer communication.

Pairing takes time to implement, as it requires training. But we invest that initial time because we prioritize communication. These articles dive deeper into this practice, including pros and cons for design pairing. [1], [2], [3], [4]

Other practices for short feedback loops:

  • Daily morning stand-ups with catered breakfast, where anyone can introduce new faces, share interesting news and events, and ask for help.
  • Weekly tech talks with speakers like Mike Monteiro sharing insights over lunch. Pivots present our own talks during this time as well.
  • General rule of thumb: in-person conversation > online chat > email.

3. Work in the present. Reflect for the future.

We take our retrospectives on Friday afternoons with wine and cheese. A team huddle before the weekend.

Our project kickoff meetings include direct discussions on risk assessment and mitigation, identified together with clients.

We accept change as a given in our environment. True to our cultural tenets, we do what is best in the moment, and then focus kind energy towards each other and towards the future. It’s quite zen.

4. Dig into down time.

There’s a beach at Pivotal Labs.

To clarify, beach time refers to the time spent between projects. Company hack days and weeks provide structured downtime, but as a consultancy, we naturally have these periods as projects come and go.

Experimentation on the beach has birthed internal apps, including Pivotal Tracker which has spun into a public product.

During my time on the beach, I worked with developers and a PM to streamline company revenue projections. And then, I penned this post ☺

5. Create work-life balance.

“It’s past 6 pm,” my boss said on my first day, as I clicked into a new file.

Our work hours are 9–6, but I was still on my laptop, out of habit from working nights and weekends previously. It took a few days for me to internalize this practice. The result?

Spiked productivity. My subconscious still chews on problems while I sleep, so I walk into the office with new ideas — but matched by a recharged mind.

No emails on nights or weekends. I even leave my work laptop — at work! The reverse denim of my Everlane backpack has never felt so light. I focus 100% at work, stretch out in aerial yoga, and then relish the freedom of the evening and weekends. I stand taller, refreshed. Power stance.

Structure, focus, and kindness create a distinct environment at Pivotal Labs. And yes —

We are hiring.

Reach out if you have questions. In Pivot fashion, I am always happy to talk.

http://twitter.com/mikanger

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