Conditioning Company Culture

Last week, Renee and I dropped by Facebook to grab lunch with a friend of hers who has been at the company for a little less than a year. After the obligatory tour and oohs and ahhs over the new campus, we settle into lunch at the cafeteria. As we talked of his transition into a new company culture, I started noticing a reflexive response to how decisions were made and how teams operated.

Multiple times throughout the conversation he would repeat sayings like, “we think that done is better than perfect” or “we move fast and break things” followed by stories of corporate folklore wherein engineers and employees exemplified those axioms. It was clear that employees who embodied these values were celebrated and held out as examples to the rest of the company.

These mantras aren’t unique to Facebook. Google has their “Don’t Be Evil”.

Nor are they unique to technology companies.

Athletic coaches have used similar training techniques with athletes for ages.

I’m reading a book now by Daniel Coyle called The Talent Code. In it, Coyle tries to distinguish between raw talent and teachable talent through a process he calls “deliberate practice”. 

Summarizing a key point of the book book John Coyle observes:

Daniel Coyle describes the unique characteristics of the coaches who create the right environment for focus on deliberate practice. In one chapter he details the key elements of a master coach, by documenting the actions of a certain famous athletic coach. This coach’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. “There were no lectures, no extended harangues…. “He rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds. “What made this coach great, “wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. “His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players.”

This, not that. Here, not there. “His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. “He was seeing and fixing errors. “He was honing circuits.”

This maps to what I was hearing at Facebook. Short, oft repeated phrases that reenforced the values of the culture and “honed the circuits” of employees. As I pecked around, I found they’d gone so far as to hang posters with these value statements around the company to reenforce them. 

The value of this reenforcement was clear in our lunchtime chat. When making decisions on how teams should operate, or what they should do in a given situation, the entire company had these touchstones they could point to in order to see if the decions they were about to make or the actions they were about to take, mapped to those well understood values.

This seemed to have an empowering effect at Facebook.

And I would argue that every company, particularly in our little corner of the world, could benefit wildly from having a similar set of guiding principles, captured in their own voice, and repeated frequently that can serve as the foundation for conditioning the kinds of cultures they want to build.