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A basic Culture — Growth coordinate system for startups

Thoughts on meritocracy, fairness and innovation

Sina Meraji
Jun 30, 2019 · 4 min read

Growth and culture are frequently discussed in the startup ecosystem and lately any conversation revolving around these will also touch on matters such as “diversity”, “inclusivity” and “fairness” and will try to somehow create a positive or negative correlation between a company’s culture and the extent to which it can innovate and grow.

Ever since I gave up on my dream of becoming a professional footballer and entered university to study AI instead, I’ve had a deep interest in the concept of growth, in personal, social and organizational context. That, and my product management experience in the past year working at a high-culture and growing startup and the hundreds of hours of conversations that I’ve gotten to have with friends in the tech community has convinced me different companies have different definitions of “Culture” and some companies derive more value from their culture than others, and that maybe a little Culture–Growth coordinate system, a compass, might come in handy.

In many of the conversations that I’ve had in the past year, surprisingly, I got the impression that many friends/companies felt you can’t focus on both culture and growth at once, that you either optimise for high-growth and treat culture as a secondary nice-to-have thing, or optimise for culture and risk slower growth.

Interestingly, I’ve even seen this conversation getting politicised (e.g. liberal companies, conservative companies, factual companies, emotional companies) and causing some companies to believe that there are really 2 types of people to hire, this or that; potentially making “culture-fit” a double-edged sword that can result in “a homogeneous workforce that is rigid and susceptible to groupthink, ultimately putting companies at higher risk of being disrupted.”

My thinking is that a black and white coordinate system for growth and culture is dangerously inefficient and limiting, and that we should optimise for a culture that cultivates growth:

Viewing culture this way means we can achieve radical transparency without creating toxicity, we can address facts without ignoring emotions, and hiring for capability and culture-fit while being open to gain value from culture-add.

Culture-add vs culture-fit

Research and some of the most innovative companies in the world show that there is a relationship between culture and innovation in an organization, in a way that great culture can lead to innovation.

Here’s a piece from an interesting paper that I’ve read on this topic, and on the definition of culture:

Organisational culture is defined in many different ways in the literature. Perhaps the most commonly known definition is “the way we do things around here” (Lundy and Cowling, 1996). In this research organisational culture is defined as the deeply seated (often subconscious) values and beliefs shared by personnel in an organisation. Organisational culture is manifested in the typical characteristics of the organisation. It therefore refers to a set of basic assumptions that worked so well in the past that they are accepted as valid assumptions within the organisation. These assumptions are maintained in the continuous process of human interaction (which manifests itself in attitudes and behaviour), in other words as the right way in which things are done or problems should be understood in the organisation.

Take that –the right way in which things are done or problems should be understood in the organisation– and think of new members of a company that may or may not perform at their best if they approach things in the way things are currently done within an organisation. At this point, it’s safe to say that the value the new member can add is a function of the organizational culture surrounding her/him.

If she fails to add value the way the company expected her to, either she’s a bad hire; or a great hire that the culture couldn’t be flexible to include and adapt to; in which case I could visualize the opportunity cost of the organization not adapting to such new member in a way like this:

Visualizations are mine :) reused them from my TEDx talk on World’s Next Education System.

Reference

Building organisational culture that stimulates creativity and innovation, E.C. Martins
https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/14601060310456337

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