Democratizing your Culture

“Democracy is the worst form of government.  Except for all of those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

– Winston Churchill

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Culture is the center of the start-up.  It is the pulse.  It is the soul.  It is the binding that gets teams through hard times.  It is the intoxicant that enables teams to share the highs with each other – making them even higher.

At BloomReach we have our own core values, written in February 2009, before my cofounder Ashu or I had raised any money, figured out our product, determined what market we were going after or hired our first person.  That’s how important it was to us.

The most interesting question around culture is not, “What is your culture?”  It is, “How do you make your culture real?”  Thousands of enterprises have come before your start-up or growing business.  Most of them have terrific culture and values documents.  But they are not real.  They are not authentic to the team or to the business; and they don’t manifest in ways that are practical to the work lives of employees.  The pseudo-cultures think that the key to great culture is a lot of parties, free food or cool schwag.  It’s not.

The key to making your culture real is to democratize it.  The aspirational goal of your culture should be to make it genuinely co-owned by every member of your team.  That can be counter-intuitive because so much about companies is top down – the titles, the strategic direction, the planning, the compensation and the decision-making.  But culture needs to be built bottom-up.  It can’t be the responsibility of the HR team or even the CEO.

It has to be an organism that grows and shrinks with the ebb and flow of your business and the personalities of your team.  It has to be truly democratic.  So how do you democratize your culture?  A democratic culture draws from the pillars of a democratic society.  It starts with citizenship.

Here are 10 ways we do it:

  1. The BloomReach Citizenship Document:  We maintain a document of dozens of initiatives – broken up between “Fun” and “Company Building” in a Google doc spreadsheet.  Each initiative has an owner and a team.  Initiatives can be “improve remote office communication,” “organize fitness activities,” “organize peer awards” (more on that later) or “create volunteer events.”  No one approves these initiatives.  The only ask of a new BloomReacher is that he or she do something that goes beyond their job description to contribute back to the company.  Many of their contributions are memorialized in the BloomReach citizenship document.  It serves as a repository of our “democratic traditions.”
  2. Hackathons and Business Challenges:  We’ve had a tradition at BloomReach of either running hackathons (24-hour efforts to build and ship something cool) or running the BloomReach Challenge (where the entire company is divided into cross-functional teams to dream up business and product ideas). Hackathons and business challenges encourage people who never get to work together and often don’t know each other to get creative and get to know one another.  It also reinforces that just as the rewards belong to all of us, the challenges belong to all of us.  Eighty out of 170 people participated in our last hackathon and several new product features came out of it, promoting the energy and creativity that are “must-haves” in any start-up.
  3. The Open Floor Plan: Democratizing your culture starts with open communication among teams.  Just as in any democracy, there must be freedom of expression. The open floor plan creates energy, expression and sends a clear statement that the environment values everyone equally.  Yes, it can lead to some loss of individual productivity, but the cultural gain across the organization outweighs all of that.
  4. One Set of Rules:  Are you flying first class and expecting others to travel coach? Is an exec allowed to spend exorbitant amounts of money on a team dinner that a team itself would not be allowed to spend on its own?  All of these send clear signals – that the culture does not value the contributions of every member of the team equally.
  5. Peer Awards: Peer awards are fantastic.  They reinforce that the highest honor anyone can receive is an unsolicited award from a teammate.  For us, peer awards are a big deal.  Anyone can give them as a thank you to a colleague, along with a $150 gift certificate.  It comes with an Oscar-like thank you speech and creates the essential quality of a democratic culture –the willingness to go to great lengths to help a teammate in need.
  6. Bonuses on Company Performance:  A key to democratizing your culture is the idea that “we rise and fall as one company.”   And there is no credibility to that claim if the compensation of individuals is meaningfully at odds with how the company performs.  Of course, one should find mechanisms to recognize extraordinary performance but a democratic culture means democratic compensation features.  Because base compensation and equity are often variant on time of joining and role, a target bonus percent purely based on overall Company performance helps equalize the compensation mix.
  7. Independent Ownership of Decisions: A pillar of the democratic culture is the idea that each individual is an adult, capable of making good decisions as an owner of the business.  At BloomReach, we borrow from the Netflix model of limiting “policies” – no vacation policies, no expense policies and no over-legislation of behavior.
  8. Self-Scoring of OKRs (Outcomes and Key Results): Nothing is more typically top-down than individual performance.  On the other hand, self-scoring of team OKRs enables teams to (in a non compensation-impacting way) score themselves in public and share those scores openly.  It holds each team accountable to each other.
  9. 360 Feedback: We try to keep our performance-feedback process simple.  However, one of the key changes we’ve made is to incorporate 360 feedback (particularly, feedback from peers).  Top down feedback reinforces that the only thing that matters is pleasing your boss.  In truth, high-impact initiatives involve teams collaborating with each other fruitfully.
  10. Hanging out together:  You can’t force friendships.  But you can put people in a position to get to know each other genuinely.  We do that with a lot of company-sponsored initiatives like soccer teams, volunteer events and running relays.  I’m proud of the number of BloomReachers that hang out with each other.  Social relationships build camaraderie.  And camaraderie creates loyalties that go beyond loyalty to the company. (Ok, there are some parties involved.)

I believe that a democratic culture solves the single most difficult conundrum of growth: scaling while maintaining extraordinary commitment.  We have a long way to go to continue to evolve what being a BloomReacher means.  I am sure, however, that the answer to every impending decision lies somewhere in the historical tradition of the only system that has ever really worked: democracy.

Photo courtesy of “DEMOCRACY” by SUXSIEQ under CC BY 2.0

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