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Graduating and the Cult of Organizational Culture April 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I’ll confess right at the beginning that I’ve been reading Dan Lyons, a.k.a. Fake Steve Jobs, and more recently with HubSpot. He notes that it, and other companies, promote a culture that those of us who have been around for a while may find strange.  One telling example is that when a person is fired (let go, laid off, or whatever you want to call it), they are euphemistically referred to as having “graduated”.

I’ve also been giving some thought to the simply incorrect concepts that are unquestioningly accepted in many tech companies regarding culture. Cultural fit is probably at the top of that list.  Dan cites the “culture code” that Netflix published in 2009, where Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position”.

Um, no. That is not a sports team.  No sports team has stars at every position.  What they have are people that can contribute complimentary skills that, taken as a whole, make the team strong.  I seem to remember a professional football team from a few years ago that declared itself to be a “Dream Team” based on the quality of individual players.  That dream team went 4-12, resulting in the firing of the coach and dismantling of the team.

I feel safe in saying that Netflix is wrong, on so many levels.

As it happens, I know the Moneyball concepts fairly intimately, thanks to a series of presentations and articles I did. The Oakland Athletics didn’t consist of stars by any means.  In fact, it had no stars.  Instead, it had people who had well-defined results in specific areas that were highly correlated with winning games.

We can’t define what wins games in software, because there is a broad range of outcomes between being wildly successful and filing for bankruptcy. And that conclusion can change surprisingly fast.  It is a marathon, not a sprint with a defined winner and loser at the end of each day.  But we can build a team to thrive through good times and adversity.  And that team might have stars, but it also has journeymen, older and younger contributors, and contributors with different societal perspectives.

Organizational culture is not a unique value proposition, nor a competitive advantage. It is a filter through which the organization views and makes decisions about hiring, working conditions, benefits, and interaction with employees.  Not all filters are bad, although many are.  By filtering, we are limiting the scope (and I would argue the value) of information that the organization will consider and act on.

I think it’s pretty clear that what Lyons describes is an unhealthy work environment, mentally and likely physically. I doubt that it has anything but a negative impact on the long-term success of HubSpot.

So what are the things that make organizations unhealthy rather than healthy? The GE forced ranking and yanking system of the 1980s that was widely praised and copied is today considered stupid and counterproductive.  Accepted thinking changes, although any reasonable assessment of what GE was doing must acknowledge that it hurt more than helped.

Ultimately, it may boil down to the Potter Stewart rule of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”  Ultimately, we will build a better company, and a better culture, if we set those filters broad rather than narrow.  Disagreements in strategy and tactics can, and should, be healthy.

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