Culture Coding for Fully Formed Adults

How to create and maintain good culture while fighting complexity creep.

The issue of creating and fostering culture in a company or organization is tricky. Partially because the concept of culture is somewhat nebulous, but also because in order to do it right, you have to make one giant assumption.

Darmesh Shah, CTO and co-founder of Hubspot, gave a talk at DF13 about creating, establishing and maintaining culture in a company. We’ve talked about the why, and a bit about the how.

Dharmesh pulled back the curtain on Hubspot’s struggles and successes with exploring, creating and documenting company culture. And that included one significant assumption that might seem a little obvious, but it’s implications for Hubspot might surprise you.

Assume you’ve hired fully formed adults

That’s it. Assume that when you hire someone, they are an adult with all the neat features adults come equipped with – good judgment, responsibility, the ability to use logic to make rational decisions, etc.

With that in mind – here’s how company culture played out for Hubspot.

  • Employees choose their own hours and where they work from. Results matter more than where or what time of day we produce them.
  • Vacation time is not tracked and there are no limits on vacation time. And, Dharmesh cautioned, his employees do abuse this policy, but not in the way you might expect. He found people weren’t taking enough vacation.
  • Almost complete transparency is tucked into every crease of Hubspot’s culture. The average age at Hubspot, Dharmesh said, is 27 years old – a fairly young crowd. They love transparency. More precisely, they “love it; love it; love it” he said.
  • No social media policy. You should know whether or not you should post something to your network.

That’s just a sample of some of the outcomes when you assume you’ve hired fully formed adults…for Hubspot, anyway. According to Dharmesh, the approach was – “don’t write rules, right wrongs.”

And using good judgment is crucial when you allow this amount of freedom. Dharmesh described a hierarchy of good judgment that sounded a little like a military creed, but it’s really built like a mathematical formula. You solve for a series of things:

Solve for team over self, company over team, customer over company.

If you choose the wrong side, the equation falls apart – and that’s the definition of using bad judgment. Every decision should be run through this test. Failure will be painfully obvious.

There are dangers, Dharmesh said. Complexity has a way of creeping in. What’s good for one group might not be great for another. Even raising the issue of culture might rub some people the wrong way.

Address the complexities immediately, as their true toll lies below the surface and can slowly and silently pull your culture apart at the seams.

One way to approach culture coding that can help address complexities before they arise is to start with a “federal” set of values – an executive-level take on things.

But, Dharmesh said, you’ll run into “state” laws that conflict.

The key is to balance federal against state – it won’t be the same for every organization, but it’s a good framework to apply to the task of codifying culture.

Dharmesh described building, defining and maintaining Hubspotter culture as the hardest thing he’s taken on during his career to date. It’s easy to see why and even after you’ve “created” your culture, the challenge isn’t over…in fact, it never ends.

The final task for creating a company culture is not being married to any version of it you’ve created. Workforces change. Companies change. Organizations grow and shrink and mutate time and time again. Your culture should, too.

“As you grow, there is a very very strong temptation to preserve culture – understandable, but wrong,” Dharmesh said. “You have to adapt.”