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How an established business can benefit from startup culture.

April | Culture by Design | Read time: calculating...

How established businesses can benefit from startup culture

Culture is malleable; highly capable of evolving even when we’re working remotely and physically distanced from our team. We know corporate culture can and does shift on its own, just not usually in the direction we’d hope. Is now the time to bring in the benefits of startup culture?

Since the start of 2020, and even in the last week, we’ve seen monumental changes to working structures and the embrace of technology – many businesses are still feeling their way through these changes. At this time of flux, economic stress and potentially toxic private chat groups, it’s vital to build culture by design

This article covers:

  • Identifying your current culture
  • Alternative management models
  • The benefits and risks of startup culture
  • Encouraging the embrace of startup culture

If you’re experiencing high turnover, disengagement, customer attrition or a lack of innovation, you may find it useful to check out our article, How to identify and fix a dysfunctional work culture.

What is corporate culture?

Corporate culture comprises an organisation’s expectations, philosophy and the values that guide member behaviour internally and externally – the ‘togetherness’ of how things are done. Terms like “workplace culture,” “organisational culture,” and “business culture” are often used interchangeably.

Another definition of organisational culture can be attributed to Richard Perrin: “Organisational culture is the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organisation.” That glue might include:

  • A common vision, purpose, goal or mission
  • A shared set of assumptions of beliefs
  • Shared history or experiences
  • Acceptable behaviours (written or tacitly understood)
  • The communal space (physical or online)
  • Non-workplace-related commonalities

According to the co-founder of Genesis Advisers, Michael D. Watkins, culture is also the immune system of your organisation. A form of protection that prevents “wrong thinking” and “wrong people” from entering in the first place. Without a health check of your current culture, however, it could just as actively be keeping the right people out, reducing opportunities for change or growth. Let’s be clear: culture is not one belief or method or incentive program.

Culture is an interconnected system that has more in common with economic markets than a flow chart; a lot of moving pieces that all affect one another with a total result that impacts us all.

What is startup culture?

Startup culture is not solely the purview of dreamers in garages or slick Silicon Valley wunderkind’s. Startup cultures are created in workplace environments that value creative problem solving, open communication and a flat hierarchy.

The modus operandi for businesses that we think of as ‘startups’ is for people to break the mould and challenge conventional thinking, rather than limit their capacity by trying to fit the status quo. Individuals and teams have cultural permission (or even incentives) to tackle problems in inventive ways. Ways that, in a traditional corporate culture, might be kiboshed by a middle manager for not being ‘how things are done’.

Those who contribute and succeed in startup culture seem to innately understand the need to ideate, iterate and improve. Deadweight is cut fast. Starting a business is nothing new and, admittedly, nascent businesses have less baggage and can move fast. They MUST adapt quickly to internal and external pressures in order to survive. As such, a startup culture promotes business agility and adaptability as being key virtues. 

As a business grows from a lean few to a global presence, is there a way to maintain this edge? Or, how can a larger business bring the benefits of startup culture into their corporate culture?

First, what kind of workplace culture do you have?

A company’s culture will be reflected in how the business operates: its dress code, hours of operation, office setup, benefits, hiring decisions, treatment of clients, employee satisfaction, and other aspects of operations. 

Are most decisions around these areas made by the management of your organisation?

If you answered yes, you’re almost certainly in an organisation that has a traditional corporate structure imposing a corporate culture. There is nothing inherently wrong with traditional hierarchies in business, especially in industries where taking big risks even on a small stage can have devastating effects (such as in hospitals). 

Processes, procedures and protocols will always have their place. Of course, that doesn’t mean that front-line employees shouldn’t be consulted on policies that affect them.

In a corporate culture, core values are typically dictated by management based on the identity of the company, including its mission statement, products and customer service. 

Startup culture often has alternatives to hierarchical leadership and alternative management strategies. High-profile examples of alternative strategies that are applicable to corporate culture include holacracy and agile project management techniques.

Holacracy is an open management philosophy that values self-organisation and collaboration in workplace culture. Strikingly, it eliminates job titles and other such traditional hierarchies in favour of flexible roles.

Agile management focuses on deliverables with a flexible, trial-and-error strategy. It often groups employees in a start-up environment approach to creatively tackle the company’s issues at hand. Both have an impact on culture and have been used in large organisations such as Zappos and Spotify respectively, proof that larger companies can find success through internal ‘startups’ for projects. And let’s not forget that many of the tenets of startup culture have been enshrined in successful large manufacturing companies for years, often referred to as kaizen.

The risks and benefits of startup culture

First, the risks. We would never advocate turning an entire company into a startup incubator all at once, especially when so much else is changing daily. Many startups ‘fail’. They must be allowed to do so in order to progress, to ‘find ways not to make light globes,’ document the process and keep moving. Yes, there are risks to having people independently R&D your business DNA… but when is there ever no risk? 

Healthy conflict, social connectedness

Startup culture embraces conflict, which is often lessened when people get to “choose their lab partner.” People who like each other will find ways to work together. Startups are often born of friendship, but founders need to get clear on whats business and what is personal and keep them separate. Then they can put egos aside and work on the task at hand.

Solve problems faster

Facebook started with the ethos of ‘move fast and break things’, a motto that related as much to coding as their impact on the world. However, as we’ve seen from Zuckerberg’s media platform in recent years, more disruption isn’t always better. Informal design and management practices can help crack a problem faster, but it’s going to take a few trials to know when it’s suitable to pull out that tool.

Increase engagement

If a colleague asked you to drive them around for a day, at their beck and call, you’d want an incentive to do so, right? But if it was your destination on the map, you wouldn’t think twice about grabbing the car keys and getting in the driver’s seat. When we feel empowered over our destiny, responsible for it, we take greater care of the energy that goes into it. Like caring for an animal, we work with joy on a ‘pet project.’

How to leverage startup culture

Don’t tell people about their values. Ask

One way to better understand people’s values is to send out an anonymous online survey – a few quick questions to get the temperature of what people really believe. You’ll be surprised how the majority of people are on a similar wavelength to each other, (which might not be the same as yours).

Get clear on your purpose

Again, not what you want it to be, but how it is represented across the organisation. This is a big question for a lot of people right now: how are we trying to impact the world? No six-year-old says that when they grow up they want to be “in charge of mergers and acquisitions of global sporting goods brands.” “To help the world get healthy”, though, is something we can get behind.

Confirm commitment

Culture, like society, needs people to buy-in for it to be maintained. In the words of controversial religious leader Osho, “Society is just a clearing in a forest.” His own society became overgrown rather quickly following the fallout from several scandals. (By the way, if you are self-isolating, make the time to watch the compelling Osho/Rajneesh doco, Wild Wild Country, on Netflix)

Banish assumptions

This may be one of the last top-down rules you’ll implement to change culture: question everything. Do we still need to send paper invoices? Why does a client have to wait three days for delivery? Is that process still relevant? How can we do it better? I’ll let you in on a secret: the people throughout your business already know how to improve it, but workplace culture keeps them quiet. One core responsibility we have as consultants is to help surface the answers from within. 

Start small. Test it. Ship it

Is there a project that a team of three-to-five people can pursue independently, even manage over video chat remotely? Create a startup cell, explaining that, while being accountable for meeting the agreed outcome (ideally something they’re passionate about, in line with your purpose), all rules are off. The hours, the dress code, the location they work is up to them. A/B test it against internal processes and measure the results. Collate your learnings.

Flatten your hierarchy

Every step of an approval chain creates a new decision-making bottleneck. The main reason we revert to ‘asking for permission’ is not about collaboration, but to pass off responsibility. Place responsibility in the person running a project startup cell to do what they need to and make the decisions. Getting legal or technical advice? Sure. But a startup business isn’t running the idea to the CEO every other week to get their input. They are the CEO. They’re focussed on the customer and the purpose. 

In Conclusion

Successful businesses are built on two repelling forces: consistency and innovation. With the global impact of COVID-19, many businesses have been forced to change their processes, their messaging, their pipelines and their products.

Everyone is trying to adapt, and “these uncertain times” has already become a cliche. Don’t give in to fear. The world is as it is and will continue to change, so organisations can’t hope for things to return ‘back to normal’. How we act now will alter history, either in our favour or against it.

A team of 50 trying to talk at once will break your video chat. It’s time to think small. By bringing startup culture into parts of the existing business with a hybrid model, we can foster industry-leading advances without necessarily sacrificing the core of the business.

Jump to a section

1. Using startup culture in times of massive change
2. What is corporate culture?
3. What is startup culture?
4. First, what kind of workplace culture do you have?
5. The risks and benefits of startup culture
6. How to leverage startup culture
7. In Conclusion