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The Right Approach to Startup Culture: Darwinian Evolution?

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Should you actively shape your company’s culture from the outset or allow your team to drift into it? Neither, says this founder.

By Chandra Jacobs (Founder, Tripchi)

Our story begins biblically. The idea was forged. A business model developed. The team, recruited. A plan was enacted. A product was built. Money was raised.  And finally, after the founder made the company, she rested, and thought about what kind of company she had made.

And then there was culture.

For most companies, this is the progression of how culture begins. Culture typically develops somewhat unintentionally after the first-order Maslow’s-hierarchy-of-needs “practical founding matters” are addressed. In the beginning, culture tends to develop tacitly and organically, as a semi-understood but still nebulous group norm, and is not usually discussed or codified until it absolutely has to be—that is, until there is a problem caused by the group norm (or in some cases, autocratic assignment) that has developed which brings the discussion on culture into the forefront.

So with accidental cultural architecture on one end of the spectrum, and intentional (designed from the beginning) cultural architecture on the other, which should we choose? Where does your company sit on this spectrum?

Check out this poll to see what others are saying.

Can this seemingly “accidental” culture even be avoided? Can we not, instead, aim for an intentional culture?

Yes. But should we?

I mean, in founding a startup, especially today, when we are all so much more self-aware and emotionally intelligent than we used to be (or at least we think we are), we all seem to accept that it’s better to think about and discuss second-order Maslow-ian needs like culture, early on, so problems with things like shared values, mission, motivation, incentive, gratefulness, accountability, work ethic, transparency, decision-making, trust, commitment can be headed off at the pass (or at least deferred a little longer, since many of these are a veritable inevitability).

I want to challenge this assumption through two lenses: the Devil’s Advocate and the Comtemporary Hipster Startup Guru.

The Devil’s Advocate

The inevitability argument. Cultural rifts, employee problems and value problems are all inevitable no matter how much time you spend in the beginning thinking about them, socializing the concepts, gaining buy-in, and upholding accountability.

Thinking about culture prematurely is a distraction. Therefore, why distract yourself from higher order needs like product development and fund-raising? Once you have those in place, then you can start to think about nonsense like “What type of company do I want to build?” besides one that “Satisfies a real need and makes money.”

Contemporary Hipster Startup Guru

Your company’s values should share your values. You’re a founder. As such you’re entitled take the initiative to set your company’s cultural norms right from the beginning, and make sure they never deviate. Set these norms to your own moral compass (or the collective of the group of founders) and never deviate, otherwise you will be left with a sour taste in your mouth as the company grows.

Don’t sell out. Always course correct back to the original values; if you don’t, discord will ensue. Team members won’t believe in the accountability of the system you set up. Moreover, it is your responsibility as a founder to enforce these values since the founding team bought in to them in the beginning. It would look hypocritical and disingenuous if you changed or altered the cultural values as you grew.

Why Both Of These Perspectives Are Wrong

Live and let live. Rather than dictating a culture based on the founders personal opinions, we should let culture “develop” as it would, as a living organism fed by team input, success (or failure) and other principles of company cultural Darwinism that act as a feedback mechanism and inform optimization (the best, most optimum culture will inevitably evolve and win out over lesser, sub-par cultures…or else the company will die).

Thinking about culture is like entropy. Like entropy (the predilection of the universe towards a state of disorder), the discussion around company culture also has the tendency toward expansion, and even chaos, as time progresses, as the company grows, as conflicts arise, as complexity ensues. Also like the physics-based entropy principle, energy needs to be expended in the beginning, in the company’s formative periods, so that the discussion around company culture doesn’t become all-consuming, purposeless, and distracting.

Reach a middle ground. Culture definitely needs to be thought about upfront briefly so that it doesn’t become like trying to find a product name -distracting and exasperating; and then a decision about the general direction needs to be made as quickly as possible, with the lean methodology as the modus operandi or Invisible Hand. Once the ship is heading in a direction (not necessarily the right direction), we can let company culture evolution take its course and subsequently course correct along the way. As the ship captain we can guide the discussion and revisit the codification of the cultural norms, but we should neither tyrannically dictate nor completely ignore the conversation.

In the beginning, there will always be a culture that is instantly created. Just be diligent enough to tend to it as the company evolves so that it has a chance to adapt. It’s really the Goldilocks approach. Don’t under water it, don’t over water it. Give it the right amount of attention at the right times.

Easy right?

Photo by Ahmed ZiZoo via Flickr.

How is your company forming culture?

Chandra

About the guest blogger: Chandra Jacobs (@tripchi) is the founder of tripchi. She has a background in tech, innovation and product development, especially as applied to web and mobile apps in the entrepreneurship arena. More recently, she has moved more into marketing and strategy post-MBA, as well as entrepreneurship.