There are lots of things to be said about company culture. Dozens of books, videos, conference talks, and blog posts out there covering the topic, but it’s still very hard to grasp the point. In this post, I’m sharing my thoughts about why company culture is one of the most important topics, and a few thoughts on the kind of culture we aim to build at Bitrise.
What even is company culture?
Culture is something you can’t really write down in Confluence pages, and you can’t put on walls around the office–if you even have any offices still.
Let me give a silly example. Someone dropped some trash next to the bin in the kitchen. A simple human mistake, all of us experienced or done something similar. A few minutes later you, a Software Engineer, go to the kitchen for your well-deserved coffee and see that trash around the bin.
What do you do?
- You do nothing–it’s not your job. Office cleaners will come soon and take care of it.
- You escalate–it seems wrong to let it be. You don’t want clutter in the office, so you let the Office team know.
- You fix it–it’s effortless. Not your job, probably someone’s unintentional mistake, but it takes a second to fix.
Whatever your choice is, that’s totally fine. All three options are viable solutions to the problem. However, whichever option you choose says something about your company’s culture. As actions are always louder than words on the wall.
Culture is the invisible fabric that holds things together. You can’t grab it, you can’t name it, you can’t write it down. But whenever you feel something is off – whenever something is not happening as it should, or someone is doing something they shouldn’t – culture as a “safety net” kicks in. And having a conversation about actions that should have been done differently is keeping culture alive.
This is not magic. And even though it’s really hard to summarize a specific culture in writing, we are still trying to do so as often; that’s the best way to start a conversation. And this will lead us to values.
Values vs. culture
Values are important building blocks of the company culture. These should be easy to understand and have more hands-on elements you can write down, share, refer to, act upon it, etc.
At Bitrise, these are the values that we are proud of, and embody on a daily basis:
- We move with urgency and focus: we react quickly, iterate often, and aim to find practical solutions based on data.
- We are direct and open-minded: we regularly share feedback and continuously find a way to learn and improve.
- We care: about people. We listen and ask questions to better understand how can we help our customers and team members.
- We help each other be better: we work and collaborate together in a diverse team, inspiring us to be the best of ourselves.
We look for these values during the interviews, try to work with these values in mind, and if something is off, we compare actions to these values. Really, it’s not rocket science: just a few very basic things around our way of working we find valuable.
That’s it! You can write it down, you can put it out on the walls, and you can share it on Slack. We have values, together they form culture, so we’re done! Or are we?
The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.
— Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility
Netflix has a super keynote talk (and some other available readings) about company culture. This is one of my favorite points from that talk: actions vs. words. Values vs. culture. Because at the end of the day, actions tell you the truth, while fancy values on the wall might lie. And based on this, I have an opinionated conclusion: every culture is a good culture. As long as it’s honest. Trouble starts when the actual values are far away from actions on a daily basis.
That’s not a true/false or a yes/no question, though. When a lot of people from different cultures come together to share the same values and work towards a common goal, things will usually be aligned. However, a lot of people working together sometimes add misunderstandings, friction, or even frustration to the mix. And in these situations, values might help them to get back on track – but it can also happen that people act in a way that doesn’t necessarily correlate with those values.
As long as most of the time your values on the wall are aligned with actions throughout the days, I consider that a good culture, despite what it says. And I think this because that’s a fair deal for everyone: as long as it’s honest, and everybody is honest about it, you can always make a conscious decision whether you wanna be part of it or not.
Culture fit… or culture add?
Okay, so now we have a grasp on what culture is. But the company is growing, and you might have the question: how can you make sure that everyone joining will be a “great fit” for your culture?
Well, you can’t. Of course, a round of culture interviews and aligning the whole recruitment process around your values might help a lot, but you will also hire a few folks who won’t feel comfortable in your culture.
But again, culture is the kind of fabric that keeps things together, and sometimes kicks in as a safety net. If someone is having completely different values, it should turn out pretty quickly. However, culture is a living thing. And instead of always trying to find the “same kind” of people in your roles, you might start aiming for more diversity and looking for something called culture add.
Many companies practically banned the term culture fit from their recruitment process. Of course, you are looking for folks who are “fitting” to your team and culture, but this sometimes can be a gut feeling based on our own bias: we tend to like people who are similar in terms of interests, social backgrounds, preferences, etc.
💡 While it’s absolutely important to make sure people will find their place in your organization and have a high job satisfaction, adding new and valuable thing to your culture is also a very important factor.
This is where values once again come into the equation: if you have solid values, you can create solid questions and great conversations with your candidates. If they are aligned with the company’s values, and if you evaluate your interviews against the company’s values, you can avoid bias and make sure to answer the most important question: is this person someone who can enjoy working with us and contribute to the whole company’s success?
Having new team members who are working aligned with our current values, but also adding new and impactful elements to the mix is how culture becomes truly a living thing.
Who owns culture?
Of course, the Chief Culture Office. If you don’t already have one, you should start hiring. Jokes aside: everyone owns culture. Referring back to the beginning of this post: culture starts with you. Whether you are an individual contributor, a manager, or an executive, your actions will shape the culture.
Feedback is another significant aspect of this topic, and again, values are the hands-on tools for giving great feedback. Whenever someone is doing something valuable, you should give feedback and highlight which values they embody. Whenever you experience something that should have been done differently, you should give feedback and highlight which values might help improve things.
💡 When you are doing your 360 feedback rounds or 90 days reviews for new joiners, you should also keep values in mind: almost all of the feedback should be around your values.
Providing a forum for public praise is also a great way to say thanks, celebrate success, and highlight folks who are embodying your values and thus adding to your culture. At Bitrise, we use Lattice where you can share public praise, select the values and share that public praise automatically in a Slack channel. However, always make sure to ask the person: some people love the spotlight, and some people prefer receiving praise in private.
And occasionally, you can award people in your organization who are continuously embodying the values. Those folks are probably the “ambassadors” of your company culture.
Should teams or departments have their own culture?
I think each department can have different cultural elements, as long as they are aligned with the values.
At Bitrise Engineering, we frequently use the phrase “We aim for speed & confidence”. That is totally aligned with “We move with urgency and focus”, but also more hands-on for Engineers. We have a set of examples of what is considered to be a great approach in some situations, and how that handful of things embodies one of the company values.
We also have a Career Framework, and a Decision Making Framework and those all align with the company values. Whenever you make a decision, the first thing is to keep the values in mind. If you are looking for leveling up your career with a promotion, your contribution to the values will help you in achieving that.
How to “update” the culture
As values are the building blocks of culture, values should be reviewed from time to time. It can happen that some of your values need a refresher, or you’d like to add new ones. When something good has been added to the culture, it’s time to find the value in it. This should happen occasionally and collaboratively.
💡 The best way to achieve this is to have at least a yearly review event when people who are invested and interested in this topic come together from various teams and departments to discuss opportunities to improve. RFC could be a great process to propose the changes, and eventually the leadership teams should be involved in the final decision-making.
Here are the key takeaways from this post:
- Culture is a living, breathing thing, the fabric that keeps teams together.
- Your actions define the culture.
- You can’t write down culture, but you can write down values.
- Instead of culture fit, look for culture add.
- Everyone owns culture.
- Each team can have their set of values, as long as it is aligned with the companies.
- Come together at least once a year to review and update your values.