Company culture should be fluid, not fixed

Have you changed your mind recently?

In It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy At Work by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson (the founders of Basecamp), the authors set out a manifesto for dismantling the anxiety-ridden stress machines that many modern companies have become. They rail against both corporate and startup culture - the growth-at-all-cost mentality, prioritising productivity over everything else. It's bad for people, and bad for profit.

One of their main ideas to solve this problem is recognising that company culture shouldn’t be fixed. It should be something that gets better over time.

It’s okay to change things up at work

The mentality that drives the authors is continual improvement. They see company culture as something that changes over time depending on what works best for employees, managers and customers - not something that’s strictly defined by a pre-written policy.

Obviously without structure a company can’t function, but their processes for getting things done (like releasing software updates) are simply observed, then changed, until they find a fit.

At Basecamp, they found the best way to work was to focus on projects for six weeks at a time, then take two weeks away from them to ‘roam and decompress’. Keeping projects on short cycles works well for them:

“When you stick with planning for the short-term, you get to change your mind often. And that’s a huge relief! This eliminates the pressure for perfect planning and all the stress that comes with it. We simply believe that you’re better off steering the ship with a thousand little inputs as you go rather than a few grand sweeping movements made way ahead of time.”

They see their company, and its culture, as a work-in-progress that deserves a version number, just like software:

“We work on our company as hard as we work on our products.”  

Their manifesto makes for a thought-provoking read. Many of us have worked in big companies that seem to evolve at a snail's pace. Some offices seem stuck in the 1980s - from the decor, to the IT, to the attitudes. Surely there's a better way to do things?

It’s okay to change your mind

“To change is to be alive.” - Austin Kleon

We’re now seeing how the feed-based information delivery systems of the internet, run by algorithms and hidden rules, trap us in ‘filter bubbles’. These are a kind of echo chamber for our online lives. They feed us only the information they think we want to know. Day-to-day this might seem useful - so if we like one video about football, we might like to see another video about football.

But long-term, this can shape our entire outlook on life if we’re not careful. To stay properly informed we have to opt out, go offline, and search for things rather than let them be fed to us. Be proactive, not reactive.

The same goes for company culture. It’s easy to reinforce things just because they seem to work. Maybe there's a no holidays at the start of January rule or no working from home unless you're a manager policy. If they're left unquestioned, they'll stay as they are - even if they don't make sense. Workers of every level might be afraid to experiment or offer a new perspective just because it's not the way things are done.

But it's fine to change our minds about how we do things. In fact, we should.

Austin Kleon, the creativity expert, writes about changing minds in his book Keep Going:

“If a politician changes their mind publicly, it’s a sign of weakness. A sign of defeat. And you don’t want to change your mind too much, heaven forbid, because then you’re wishy-washy. Social media has turned us all into politicians. And brands. Everyone’s supposed to be a brand now, and the worst thing in the world is to be off-brand. But to be on-brand is to be 100-percent sure of who you are and what you do, and certainty, in art and in life, is not only completely overrated, it is also a roadblock to discovery.”

His words apply to individuals, but businesses, too - if you're not moving forwards, you're moving backwards. Being certain that 'everything is perfect now' is a sure-fire way to remain mediocre.

Business works on change

Even if you're a big corporate, there's a good reason to change things up every once in a while. Business is all about change: moving information, services and materials from one place to another, adding value along the way, in an environment that doesn't stand still. Innovation comes from testing, evaluating and changing until something works.

The world of work has changed. Today's workers (rightly) demand sensible absence policies, parental leave rights, and comfortable working environments where everyone's ideas are listened to. It's not all about ping-pong tables and beer fridges, but creating a workplace where good ideas are allowed to flourish and failures are embraced.

This mindset might seem suited to hip startups, but it’s actually beneficial to most companies - even massive ones.

Consider the retail sector - not particularly known for its agility. Venetia Rainey, writing in Monocle Magazine’s Global Retail Survey, says:

“The really exceptional shops have that certain something extra built into their DNA: a willingness to smash up the rulebook when needed.”

She writes about IKEA’s change of direction in committing to becoming 100% waste-free by 2030 - a massive feat for a global icon of throwaway consumerism. Surely an enormous logistical headache, but they're doing it anyway. They recognised their customers demanding increased environmental consideration in their business practices, and did something about it.

What can you change up in your business?

Whether it's a tiny operation or global mega-corp, any firm can benefit from a little self-assessment every now and then. Questions should be asked about what works and what doesn't. Subtle tweaks to the office environment, or updates to employee rights can rejuvenate a company's workforce, culture and financial performance.

Is there anything you can change about your company culture? Any cobwebs that need sweeping out for the spring? Now might be a good time to start mixing things up a bit.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash