How to transform company culture from a nebulous idea into tangible action
Many years ago, I was excited to join a tech company to lead product management. The product and its underlying technology was complex and promised immense intellectual satisfaction. My manager recruited me saying he had never led a product organization before and would give me autonomy. It sounded perfect.
On my second day into the job, I got my first clue that the toxic culture would get in the way. The CEO and a couple of his loyalists bullied an executive at the meeting, berating him publicly that his engineers weren’t working hard enough.
While some aspects of my work felt fulfilling, I found that my time was mostly spent on fighting unnecessary fires, cleaning up the aftermath, and offering therapy. The environment at work was taking a personal toll. My Sundays were anxiety-laden in anticipation of the looming workweek. When I eventually left, it took me a few months to start enjoying Sundays again.
Unfortunately, such experiences are common in the corporate world. Crossfit, Pinterest, Refinery29 are just a few examples of companies that have been in the news recently as ex-employees have shared their experience of toxic work cultures.
The problem with culture is so pervasive in the tech industry that a survey of 11,000 employees found that 57% feel burnt out by their jobs.
Working remotely during the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of company culture. Free snacks, bean bags, and sleep pods are no longer relevant perks that count towards corporate culture. Instead, companies will need a more authentic approach to evaluate their culture and figure out how to address issues to keep remote employees engaged.
As a business leader, even when you realize that your culture needs improvement, changing corporate culture feels like trying to move a cloud. How do you move something so amorphous? This framework offers an actionable approach if you want tackle culture systematically and aren’t pandering to the problem.
The Radical Product Thinking framework for culture
Until now, culture was typically defined as an organization’s experiences, philosophy, values, beliefs, and customs that hold it together. The first step to making culture actionable is to frame culture differently. In the Radical Product Thinking way, we define culture as follows:
Work culture is what you experience in your workday through your work and interactions. A good work culture creates an environment that maximizes the mental and emotional bandwidth that you can sustainably invest in the business.
In the course of your workday, you intuitively engage in work and interactions based on what you find fulfilling versus what floats to the top because it seems urgent. If we visualize this balance in a 2x2 shown below, the culture you experience is the sum total of how you distribute your mental and emotional bandwidth across these four quadrants:
Strategic work: If you spend a lot of your day working in this quadrant, your workplace culture feels meaningful and fulfilling. You’re able to make deliberate progress towards your vision of creating a positive change in the world through your product/ business. You’re not under critical time pressure and can think long-term. The systematic approach to creating vision-driven change through Radical Product Thinking fits predominantly in this quadrant.
Tip: To ensure that your employees find work purposeful and maximize their time in this quadrant, craft a clear vision, a comprehensive product strategy, and a clear prioritization rubric. Without a clear direction to align the team, it’s easy to focus on the next quadrant (Heroism) because it feels urgent and more needed.
Heroism: While the work may feel purposeful, it’s under high time pressure. Corporate culture frequently incentivizes employees to spend time in this quadrant, but too much time in this quadrant puts you on the fast track to burn-out. At a company where I worked, engineers were praised for spending the night at the customer site fixing issues and rescuing the customer. As a result, engineers learned that to get visibility and advance in their careers, they were better off volunteering for rescue missions instead of dedicating themselves to projects that prevented these issues in the first place.
The demand for heroism in corporate culture can even sound inspirational. In Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener describes the work environment at an analytics startup where the ultimate praise from the CEO was saying an employee was “Down For The Cause or DFTC”. Employees earned this praise through extraordinarily long work hours or personal sacrifices. I have heard a similar version at a company where employees proclaimed their loyalty saying, “I bleed <logo color>.” The reality is that when you’re down or bleeding your logo color, it detracts from the time you’d spend on strategic long-term work. It’s also not sustainable. A study of over 2000 employees found that working 11-hour days increased the risk of depression by more than two-fold compared to the standard 8-hour days.
Tip: While praise is due when an employee solves a crisis, talk to your team about how you can avoid the problem next time. Reflect on how you could change incentives or rewards to decrease time in this quadrant.
Organizational Cactus: Organizational cactus inflicts pain through administrative tasks that don’t feel meaningful and don’t help you make progress towards the vision but they feel urgent. Examples of organizational cactus include:
- Having meetings to prepare for meetings
- Requiring approval from many layers of management
- Building consensus across a large group on relatively minor decisions
- Creating reports and dedicating time to metrics that aren’t useful indicators of progress
The effect of organizational cactus is that your organization feels sluggish as if you’re spending your day running knee-deep through a swamp. If you can reduce the time spent in this quadrant, you’d give your team more bandwidth to spend on strategic work.
Tip: Create a prioritized list of areas where employees feel like they are spending meaningless effort on administrative tasks, permissions, and reporting. Create a plan and share a roadmap for reducing the time spent in this quadrant.
Soul-sucking: This quadrant is the most emotionally draining — it depletes energy slowly over time. Examples of soul-sucking activity include having to hold back your thoughts when you disagree for fear of negative repercussions, spending time “managing-up”, or navigating a toxic and aggressive culture.
In particularly toxic work environments, I’ve observed that a 5-minute negative interaction often consumed hours of mental and emotional bandwidth afterward as employees resorted to stairwell conversations to vent and had followup meetings with their teams to do damage control and reassemble morale.
Tip: It’s important to note that this quadrant might be affecting some people in your organization disproportionately. For example, someone reporting to an insecure micromanager may spend a lot of time in this quadrant and experience a very different corporate culture from someone who is not. If you find a large distribution in responses to how much time employees are spending in the soul-sucking quadrant, you may need to address pockets of problems or a culture that’s not inclusive.
How do you use this framework?
If you believe that you need to improve your workplace culture to increase the bandwidth employees can invest in meaningful work, you can use this framework in the following steps to define your culture and make the needed changes:
- Define the problem: Making any changes to your culture will most likely trigger an immune response from the organization to avoid change. To overcome this, you need to align your team through a clear definition of the problem. What are you trying to solve through culture change? Why do you need to address your culture? Use surveys or facilitated sessions to start open and honest discussions to understand which quadrants are consuming the most emotional and mental bandwidth from your team. Identify what activities are consuming time in each quadrant. Create a shared vision with your employees for how their workday will look if culture could be improved in your organization.
- Develop a strategy: Rank order the pain points that consume the most bandwidth in each quadrant. How will you solve those pain points? What behavior changes will it require from managers and individual contributors? How will you drive these behavior changes? You can use the RDCL strategy to craft an actionable strategy for culture change.
- Create a roadmap and demonstrate progress: Once you have an RDCL strategy for changing your culture, you’ll need to prioritize initiatives that translate your strategy into action. You’ll also need to measure what matters to demonstrate genuine progress toward the shared vision.
For those of you who are already familiar with the systematic approach of creating change through Radical Product Thinking, you’ll notice that the above steps reflect the RPT way of building products (vision, strategy, prioritization, execution and measurement). Essentially, this 2x2 framework transforms culture from something nebulous into a product, i.e. a mechanism for creating the change that you want to bring about. Through a good working culture, you’re creating an environment where your employees can invest in building successful products that make the world a better place.
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Product is a way of thinking. Radical Product is a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change — you can download the free Radical Product Toolkit. It’s designed as a step-by-step guide to make it easy and practical to build successful products that make the world a little more like the one we want to live in.