Scaling the magic: How to hold on to a great company culture as you grow.

Robert Scoble posted this on Facebook today:

“Whenever you meet a successful entrepreneur ask them what their biggest mistake was.

The number one answer I hear — by far — is not focusing on culture earlier.”

Culture is discussed a lot these days, especially in relation to startups and fast-growing companies, and while the importance of culture is widely recognized, the actual dynamics of culture — how it really works — is greatly misunderstood.

Any organization that is successful will go through stages as it grows, and every growth stage has its challenges.

In the early days, a small group of founders and early employees finds a “way of working” that is fluid, organic and natural, like a sports team. People in small organizations naturally find this kind of rhythm. If you’re doing this well, it feels like magic.

Some snapshots from the early days.

If you’re successful at that stage, you will start to grow. And if you’re really successful, that growth accelerates and you come across one of the biggest challenge any startup will face. I call this one “scaling the magic.” My company hit that stage in the 1990's.

That’s me in 1999.

In the early days of XPLANE, we had a Monday morning meeting that everyone attended. Everyone would share what they had accomplished the previous week and what they were going to work on in the upcoming week. That meeting was part of the magic. Everyone knew what everyone else was working on, we all understood the business as a system, and we could all see the connections between what we were doing and the larger goals of the business. We could also how we could help each other, make each other’s jobs easier, eliminate unnecessary work, and so on.

As the company grew, that Monday morning meeting started to get unwieldy. First, it started getting longer. What used to be a half-hour meeting stretched to an hour, then two hours, then the entire morning. About this time, the meeting got to be too big for any of the rooms in the office. We had to rent out the second floor of a nearby coffee shop.

The Monday morning meeting as it was nearing its peak.

At some point we faced a tradeoff: The more time we spent on communicating, connecting and coordinating our work, the less time we had to actually do the work. This kind of tradeoff is a kind of organizational paradox:

The more you coordinate and communicate about the work, the less you get done.

That’s the thing about growth. Every stage of growth produces new tradeoffs, and every tradeoff you make will impact the magic in some way. So how do you keep the magic as you scale?

For the last 20 years or so I have been thinking about this problem. It’s a tricky one. In 2007 XPLANE created a map of the culture we wanted to maintain as we grew, and that map became an incredibly helpful tool for us. Here it is:

(Read the story of the first Culture Map).

That Culture Map was so valuable that I asked my friend Alex Osterwalder, the designer of the Business Model Canvas (a thinking tool for designing new business models) if he would help me create a similar tool for designing culture. Happily, he answered yes, and the Culture Mapping project was born.

The Culture Map is a great tool for understanding culture as a way to de-risk large-scale organizational change projects, but it’s also a great tool to help you scale the magic as your company grows.

Can culture be designed?

People typically don’t think of organizational culture as something that can be intentionally designed. Culture is something that happens naturally and organically when people work together, right? I think that the answer to “Can culture be designed?” is “yes and no.”

Culture is like a garden. A garden can be intentionally designed, but at the same time, it is natural and grows organically. Some gardens are more “tame” while others are more “wild.” Some grow vegetables and others grow flowers. There is a difference, for example, between an English garden and a Japanese garden, a community garden and a backyard garden.

A good culture, like a good garden, reflects both the intentions of the designers and natural, organic growth. A good culture doesn’t happen by accident. It is what happens when there are one or more good “culture gardeners.”

Culture will not scale naturally along with the company.

Every stage of a company’s growth creates new dangers that will shift the culture, whether you like it or not. If you are the founder or a leader in a fast-growing company, scaling the magic requires you to be a good culture gardener, a keeper of the culture. And since the culture is literally how we do things around here, as you scale — especially if you are scaling rapidly — culture needs to be a top priority.

The Culture Map is a tool that you can use to intentionally design those things that can be designed. It will help you think through the most critical parameters that will shape and mold your organization’s culture as you grow. The Culture Map itself is deceptively simple, although applying it in your organization is much harder than you would think.

The map is divided into three categories: Outcomes, Behaviors, and Enablers/Blockers.

Download the PDF version.

Outcomes are like the fruits of the garden. They are the results. Just like a good garden will bear good fruits, so a good culture will deliver good outcomes. To begin with the end in mind, think about the impact that your culture needs to deliver, for the company, for customers, and for the world.

Behaviors are the things that people say and do every day. Collectively, the behaviors are how we do things around here. Behaviors are concrete, tangible, observable. They are like the plants that grow in the garden. To unpack behaviors we like to ask questions like “What was your best day here? What made it great?” and “What was your worst day? Why was it bad?”

Enablers and blockers are the areas where the most design is possible. This is the area that’s most important to the culture gardener. Enablers are the sun, water, and fertilizers of culture. Blockers are the weeds. Together, they create the environment that allows a healthy culture to grow — or not. Enablers include both written and unwritten rules, as well as leadership behaviors, which demonstrate the values in action — or not. If leaders walk their talk, that’s an enabler. If they say one thing and do another, that’s a blocker.

The Culture Map is a design tool, not a communication tool. It will help you do the design thinking, but by itself it is not enough. That’s why when we created the XPLANE Culture Map, we made something engaging and visual. Here it is again:

We created this visual map to not only highlight the characteristics that we want, but to visualize them, demonstrate how they worked in action, show what they mean and how they relate to each other. Creating and using the map confirmed my faith that by creating a vision and making it explicit, you can make it come true.

If you have a picture of an ideal place that you want to be, you’re not necessarily going to be there day one, but you can be constantly moving towards it, and having that map as a compass will keep you focused. It will help you hire the right people and support the right things. It’s something you can point to that describes who you are and who you are not. It will help you make important decisions with greater wisdom and foresight.

Culture, like a garden, is not something you create once and then forget about. It is an ongoing activity. It requires constant attention, patience, and care, and it grows slowly. But the hardest work is at the beginning. With consistent care and patience, over a period of time, you can create and maintain a company culture that is as beautiful as any garden in the world.

I know, because I’ve seen it happen. And it can happen for you too.

For more information about Culture Mapping, contact XPLANE or check out the additional resources below.

More about the Culture Map.

Sign up for the Culture Mapping email update list.

Join the Culture Mapping Community on LinkedIn.



Thoughts and musings from the visual thinkers, co-creators, and culture champions behind XPLANE Design Consultancy.

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