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Jan Barkhed

Published: 2021-06-03


Culture is not seldom used to explain why a company fails or succeeds in a situation. Problems or achievements are often explained with a simple, ”It’s in their culture”, but the real reasons are often not talked about. Many believe an existential crisis will change a culture, but there is little evidence it does. Culture is very much about how work is done, and as such, tools fulfil a key role in preserving and building a culture.

When we try to be specific, culture can be anything, because it incorporates not only specific practices and behaviour but the view of life itself. Leaders often say that culture beats processes and rules, because culture in its core decides what’s important and what’s not, and it depends a lot on education, experience, what is rewarded and what is not, and perhaps most importantly, the leadership style. Often, it’s easier to work with people who have a proper education and are not self taught, as they have demonstrated they can listen and get things done in a fast paced environment. One can say that culture is about seeing opportunities and be realistic about them, but culture is more of a simple gate-keeper that decides if an opportunity is worth the effort; it doesn’t drive new ideas or innovation — individuals do that. Changing culture is much harder than changing processes and the way a company operates, it’s formed from the start and takes a generation or two to change. Hiring new people doesn’t do that, since newly employed are changed long before the culture is.

Culture is a success factor, and as such, it should be a well kept secret, something that builds the competitive edge and decides who to hire and what to believe in. The worst a company can do is to fall into a herd mentality, as a kind of guarantee for not taking the wrong decisions. And the technology sector is one of the worst, a sign of uncertainty and a wish to reposition themselves. The same software processes, management style, technology, office locations and hiring practices give the impression they are handling kitchen-ware. Individuality and uniqueness ought to be what they value, but it’s not. Herds are about protection and survival in the animal world, not driving progress and have a better future. Organisational intentions are usually great when it comes to fighting the competition, but employees are not in a place where it will happen. The larger someone becomes, risk will be about individual careers, rewards and blame, preventing internal competitors from getting the upper hand; and less about true innovation and making real progress. When innovation finally happens, it’s usually odd, head scratching and awkward; something that could be turned into an interesting product should the culture allow it, but it doesn’t.

Never create a Startup to be admired, or to be rich, or to get access to people you would never otherwise meet. Do it because you love to build productivity applications, love to market and sell them, love to educate and help people. Happiness is, therefore, a goal in itself. Money is simply a tool to realise your dreams, a receipt for personal success, and a powerful vehicle to get people’s attention. You can work 70 hours a week, but only for a limited time, then you need to recuperate and find new challenges. The worst is to produce items and opportunities no one cares about, items that are tossed on the scrap heap. It happens to all of us, but it shouldn’t happen too often. You can look upon your Startup as an adventure, a way to make new, exciting experiences, helping others to create happiness and be successful. Startups are generally very open minded, they know what to care about and what type of problems they must solve, which people in non-Startups rarely do. When a Startup hears pure sales talk, they mostly treat it as foolish talk and excuse themselves without being rude. A Startup should accept that they are an outsider, people will certainly treat them as one, someone who needs to be lectured if they are noticed att all, which reveals how important confidence is. A Startup should own the problem they are working on, expressing it in non-antagonistic ways, such as “We think…”, “We can see…”, or ”The challenge is…”, words that can make people think. There is no point in having right-or-wrong discussions, most people will discover what’s right only in hindsight, and right-and-wrong doesn’t help a Startup to build the product they want to build.

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It’s very attractive to see progress happening, preferably every week, even on a daily basis, the absence is the problem. When nothing is happening, neither in product development nor sales, the daily grinding can make people despair. Stagnation will wipe out a Startup, weekly progress may save it. It can be simple stories, like getting noticed and feel appreciation, from colleagues and media, that can help people on their journey but the real progress is making deliveries and having real customers.

True servants when it comes to preserving and perhaps building a culture are tools. They have processes, rules and valuations implicitly built into how they operate and what they produce. Management may demand that a certain tool must be used, since everyone is using it, it may be free or the license is affordable because of a previously signed agreement, but users still hate using it. Enterprise tools have a reputation that puts them in this category, expensive and hard to operate, and it never seems to improve. Other tools can be fun to use, like chat tools, but they hardly create any real benefits except for the user’s own career or dating habits. Tools should be easy to install, a few clicks should be sufficient, they must be easy to operate, and they need to produce real results. The much used easy-to-operate cliché doesn’t mean a tool should do all the work, it should dispose of the time-consuming, trivial work, and help users concentrate on the work that makes a difference. A great tool still requires personal skills that can leverage a user to a new level in engineering.