The Culture Deck

How people work is as important as what they do.

David Siegel
Jun 12, 2014 · 22 min read

David Siegel

NOTE: Please link to this essay via, thank you.

The Culture Deck

It may have started back in 2001 with the Agile Manifesto, but there are now a growing number of videos and slide decks on lean/agile corporate culture. Several new books on management focus on culture and process in place of predictive strategy. In this article, my goal is to put all these messages in perspective by outlining a new role that I believe will become more and more important: the Minister of Culture.

WARNING: REAL CONTENT AHEAD! This essay links to most of the best research on culture. I suggest you skim it quickly to get a sense of what’s here (5-7 min). At the end, there’s a reference section linking to key content, so you don’t have to hunt for it. When you have more time, read it from top to bottom (20 min — 16 percent of readers). I’ll also show how to generate a culture score for your company and work to improve it. Finally, by clicking on embedded links and reading suggested books, it becomes a full 3-6 month course on culture that I hope will help lead companies to create this important role. Don’t think of this as a long post — think of it as a short e-book.

Ivan Tasovac, the Serbian Minister of Culture

What Does a Minister of Culture Do?
The Minister of Culture could also be called the Chief Culture Officer, Leadership Development Director, or simply the person who helps everyone create a great place to work. The Minister of Culture works with individuals, teams, and groups to build culture from the bottom up. As Bill Aulet writes in his excellent piece Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, “… culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA* of the company and is in large part created by the founders — not by their words so much as their actions.” Culture isn’t about what gets done, it’s about how and why things get done. Seen at this level, culture represents two thirds** of a company’s investment in human capital …

Does your company need a Minister of Culture? In this essay, I will outline 24 high-level things a Minister of Culture does. Most of them affect both how and why people work. For each of the initiatives, give your company a score from 0 to 4 and see whether you can use a Minister of Culture.

From the amazing Hubspot Culture deck
Holocracy’s take on org charts
The crowded, noisy work environment at Menlo Innovations (meeting in progress)

Note: blurring the lines between work and home life can create a better sense of community, but it’s also important to draw the line so that people don’t feel they are at work 24 hours a day.

This is part of the Netflix “Freedom and Responsibility” values that ask employees to use their own judgment in each situation. In that environment, everyone spends his or her time doing things for customers. At Eventbrite, the rule is: Don’t complain — if you see something that needs to be fixed, it’s your responsibility to fix it. No one tells you what you should be doing. It’s your job to figure that out. Most highly effective companies keep rules to a minimum and focus instead on hiring and development. To really drive this home, and especially for parents, I highly recommend reading “Unconditional Parenting,” by Alfie Cohen — it will change the way you interact with both children and adults. It may be one of the best business books ever written. Unconditional parenting shows how different your mindset needs to be to build strong, independent kids — it’s very challenging, requires a lot of patience, and is ultimately very rewarding.

A superb manual for parents and managers

Last year, I met with a CEO of a hot startup in Silicon Valley who said he was putting together an all-star team, where every person was the best at what he or she does. This company is a year late shipping a product that was supposed to be out the door a few months later. A company full of specialists is devoid of corporate culture and doesn’t optimize the system.

A progressive company answers questions by doing single-variable randomly controlled experiments. A few companies, like Capital One, were founded by people who were experts at experiments. Google does around 10,000 experiments per year — in a small percentage of your Google searches, you’re being experimented on. Whether they admit it or not, most companies innovate by trial and error, not by planning. For a short summary, read Scott Cook on not listening to your boss, and for a thorough understanding of the power of experiments over models and expert judgment, read “Uncontrolled,” by Jim Manzi. The Minister of Culture should help build an experiment-driven culture, where anyone can propose an experiment and decisions are made on the basis of what works, rather than who is most convincing.

At Menlo Innovations, pairs are the rule for all functions.
The Valve model for specialist/generalist skills
The amazing Valve Company Handbook
A human “Castell” competition in Spain

13 Make it Safe to Fail
In a fear-driven culture, no one wants to be seen making a mistake. These days, “fail early, fail often” is a buzzword. It’s important to tolerate, encourage, and even reward small failures. Here’s why: if everyone is afraid to make a small mistake, this fosters a de-facto culture of enormous risk taking. How can that be? Because avoiding small risks encourages taking big risks. Managers who take large business risks and fail will simply be fired (taking what they have learned to the competition), while those who take large risks and succeed will be promoted on the premise that they knew what they were doing and had “vision.” The few that make it to the top this way will be overconfident and won’t understand the fickle nature of their markets. Sound familiar?

At Coinbase, the work and workflow are explicit, radiating information and making meetings more efficient.

At Menlo Innovations, they don’t accept resumes. Instead, they have open hiring days, where they look for people with “good kindergarten skills” — supporting each other, helping others win, teaching what they know, and learning new tricks. My suggestion: hire for culture fit first, attitude and learning/teaching ability second, and skills third. Read my piece on hiring and culture.

Hubspot on hiring
The Mindvalley Office Park

People don’t work for money. You can’t pay them twice as much and get twice as much work out of them. Here’s Dan Pink talking with Polly LaBarre about ways people can hack their work environment to make work more meaningful.

From The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking

I believe most companies with strong, clear culture statements first evolved their culture to learn what works and then created their culture documents to reflect what was already happening. The actions came first, the words came second, and the culture continues to evolve. It’s not a c-level exercise in words that are then distributed and people follow. Reed Hastings said about the Netflix Culture Deck:

It’s what we wish we had understood when we started. More than 100 people at Netflix have made major contributions to the deck, and we have more improvements coming.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is simple, clear, and wrong. -H. L. Mencken

The Sensemaker tool helps find patterns by using stories as data

To learn how world-class companies manage risk by watching for outliers and listening to weak signals, read the amazing Pushing the Boundary piece by Zurich Insurance.

How does your company address these issues? If you gave your company a score of 2 or better for any of these initiatives, that’s pretty good. If your total is above 30, you’re off to a great start. While it’s far from a proper survey, it may show where your company can use improvement. Don’t say it’s hard to change culture. Just get some people together and start improving. Ask how you can most quickly move one of these areas up a single notch. Or — hire a consultant (listed below) to do a culture audit, which will surface many weak signals you may not have seen and give you a good starting point for gradual change.

To wrap up …

A New Operating System

A new model of the company is emerging, and culture is at the heart of this revolution. As they say at Thoughtworks, companies need to move from the factory model to the laboratory model. At Undercurrent, they call it the Responsive Organization. Their CEO Aaron Dignan gives an inspiring overview in his essay on the new operating system of business:

These companies are lean, mean, learning machines. They have an intense bias to action and a tolerance for risk, expressed through frequent experimentation and relentless product iteration. They hack together products and services, test them, and improve them, while their legacy competition edits PowerPoint. They are obsessed with company culture and top tier talent, with an emphasis on employees that can imagine, build, and test their own ideas. They are maniacally focused on customers. They are hypersensitive to friction — in their daily operations and their user experience. They are open, connected, and build with and for their community of users and co-conspirators. They are comfortable with the unknown — business models and customer value are revealed over time. They are driven by a purpose greater than profit …

The Minister of Culture comes to work every day with a smile and compassion for others, is a good listener, and helps people find better ways to work. It starts with small steps. Once you have earned the trust of people through listening and empathizing, you become a resource for everyone in the company. Initially, you are flooded with requests for your time and help. You spend years coaching and making thousands of small improvements. Eventually, though, you’re out of a job, because the company has adopted all these processes, and now everyone in the company is in charge of culture. A strong, agile culture lets companies grow “out of control” in a good way — from the bottom up, where employees interact with customers, without managers having to make every decision.

The Hubspot Culture deck is linked in the list below.

Reference Section

Culture Decks
The Valve Employee Handbook
The Netflix Culture Deck
The Hubspot Culture Deck
The Big Spaceship Culture Deck

Mindvalley culture video
Spotify Engineering Culture video, by Henrik Kniberg
Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell, by Henrik Kniberg
The Paul Akers Talk on Lean Manufacturing — riveting!

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast
The Talent Myth, by Malcolm Gladwell
The Zappos Culture Blog
The Myth of Multitasking
How to Let 999 Flowers Die, by Freek Vermeulen
One More Time: How do you Motivate Employees?, by Frederick Herzberg
Aaron Dignan on the new operating system of business
Thoughtworks essays on organizational agility
The Insanity of the What-by-When, by Brian Robertson
The MIX, the Management Innovation Exchange
Pushing the Boundary, by Zurich Insurance

Joy, Inc. by Richard Sheridan
Rework, by Jason Fried and David Hansson
Kanban, by David J. Anderson
Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Cohen
Two-Second Lean, by Paul Akers
Uncontrolled, by Jim Manzi
Here is a list of culture-hacking books

Hubbard Decision Research
Decision Strategies
Smart Org
The Center for Applied Rationality
Patty McCord — Workforce Science
David J. Anderson — Kanban training
Crisp, in Sweden
Leanability, in Austria
Business Agility Workshop

The 24 Aspects of an Agile Culture
Change from Command to Servant Leadership
Build Workforce Democracy
Create an “Employees First, Customers Second” Culture
Blur the Boundaries Between Customers, Employees, Managers, and Community
Values, Not Rules
Foster Learning, Teaching, and Sharing
Answer Questions with Experiments
Work in Pairs
Develop People
Implement continuous delivery in all departments
Build in Continuous Improvement
Build a Flatter Organization
Make it Safe to Fail
Make Meetings Work
Eliminate Interruptions
Get Everyone Involved in Hiring
Make the Work Environment Reflect the Culture
Make the Work Itself Rewarding and Fun
People Must Buy into and Believe in the Mission
Formalize Decision Processes at Every Level
Learn to Measure and Manage to Measurement
Surface the Hidden Stories
Create Feedback Loops and Institutional Memory
Be Nice

David Siegel is a management consultant based in Zurich (if you are on LinkedIn, please connect). He writes on business issues at Business Agility Workshop, makes YouTube videos, blogs the latest developments, writes on other topics, and tweets after lunch. If you liked this piece, please recommend it, below. Thank you.

*Companies do not have DNA. This is an overused analogy that is often unhelpful and should not be used to convince people of anything.

**This is the venn-diagram proportion fallacy. Venn diagrams are good for illustrating relationships, but the proportions are almost always wrong.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +750K followers.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +750K followers.

David Siegel

Written by

Provocateur, professional heretic, slayer of myths, speaker of truthiness to powerfulness, and defender of the Oxford comma.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +750K followers.