What’s your company’s real culture?

A culture is trendy.

It has become fashionable to brag about a company’s culture. Companies advertise themselves as having a startup-like culture, agile culture, craftsmanship culture – or whatever culture is hot at the moment.

Such cultural claims are shown off in job ads, conference talks and mission statements. They are sometimes even codified in procedures.

Fine and dandy. But does the actual, day-to-day behavior of the company’s employees affirm them?

A culture is how you really behave.

If your employees have zero autonomy in choosing their tasks and work only on what their managers assign to them, you don’t have a startup-like culture, no matter how many ping-pong tables you have at the office.

If a team is forced to commit to more tasks than they’d like for a sprint, because a CEO thinks their original estimates were too high, you don’t have an Agile culture, no matter how many certified Scrum Masters you employ.

A culture is what you really do, day-to-day, even in crisis, not what you pretend to be doing. In a true craftsmanship culture people don’t do TDD “when the deadlines allow”. They do TDD instinctively – they don’t even realize that it might not be done.

A culture can’t be enforced by procedures or decreeded. A culture is ingrained, it’s organic, it’s the way the things work when nobody is watching.

What’s NOT a culture:

  • what you write in your mission statement
  • what you say in a motivational speech
  • what’s described by a procedure
  • what’s enforced by financial bonuses or penalties
  • what’s in your job ad
  • what the management communicates to employees
  • what you must consciously remember to adhere to

What IS a culture:

  • how you behave in a crisis
  • what you take for granted and would be sincerely surprised if told to do differently
  • what you would still silently do, even if some procedure told you not to
  • which of the official rules you can break, without putting yourself in trouble
  • what you would fight for when forced to stop doing
  • what decisions you can make without fear
  • what actions the management really takes
  • what you do habitually, without consciously thinking about it

A culture is not set in stone.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that culture is so deeply inherent, that it can’t ever be changed. It doesn’t mean, either, that you can’t have a mission statement or a procedure.

A culture always beats a process at the present moment. A process is something you must guard and cultivate, a culture is habitual, it is “the way we do things here”, the path of the least resistance. However, in the long run, the proper process is a great tool to gradually shape culture. It is a good thing to be conscious of what ideals are you aiming at, and to be explicit about it.

But no process will ever work if not supported by an example from “the top”.

A culture is built on sincerity.

If you give a motivational speech about the importance of quality, but a week later you’ll press the team to hack an ugly, untested code to meet a deadline, you’ll never build a culture of quality.

The culture of quality means that quality is a deep habit, an inherent attribute of your company. It means that quality trumps everything else, every time, in every situation. And every decision you make, at any level of your company’s hierarchy, must prove it.

The primary tool for building a culture is consistency. Leaders shape it not by their directives, but by their integrity.

And only then do they deserve to brag about it.

How about your company? Please share in the comments below!

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