Culture First Conference (Pt. 2)

In Part 1 of the Culture First conference summary I wrote about my own insights which came as a result of trying to integrate clearly different definitions and implications of the word culture. Now I want to share some of the insights from the fantastic lineup of presenters. With all of my bias, here are my top takeaways from a rich two days:

Patty McCord:

Patty is well-known for her creation of what Sheryl Sandberg called, “the most important document ever to come out of the [silicon] valley,” the Netflix culture deck.

  • “At Netflix I did almost nothing new. I just threw away the bad stuff.”

  • “Humans can hear almost anything if its true. What makes them crazy is when we spin it.”

Susan Cain:

Susan Cain’s best selling book Quiet healed my introverted soul over a year ago, and hearing her speak made me want to read it all over again. I highly recommend it as a stimulating (pun intended) read for introverts and extroverts alike. You could also read this HBR interview.

  • ⅓ to ½ of employees are introverted, though it may not seem like there are that many because introverts have gotten good at acting like extroverts. Workplaces are designed primarily with the extrovert in mind.

  • Introversion is a largely genetic trait, based on sensitivity to stimulation. Introverts and extroverts can be predicted from infancy with a high degree of accuracy by sensitivity to sugar water.

  • Managers who want employees performing at peak levels would do well to understand the trait of introversion and how to support introverts in providing their best work.

  • Our concept of the gregarious, extrovert leader as the model of success is outdated - many great leaders are introverts, or “quiet” and bring unique strengths to business.

  • Introverts and extroverts can do well to act outside of their natural preferences, but not all or a majority of the time.

Aaron Dignan

Aaron facilitated an interactive and immersive learning experience for hundreds of people through his simulation game Mars2100. We broke into pods of 8 and faced real-world challenges identified by Nasa and SpaceX as barriers to the development of a colony on Mars. We were guided through opportunities to use different ways of making decisions and relating to authority, and linking these choices (implicit or explicit) to different outcomes. Aaron is working on a public version of the game due to be released later this year.

Aaron is Founder of the innovative org design & consulting firm The Ready, and is somebody I will continue to draw inspiration from for his clarity of thinking and approach to packaging good ideas in the org redesign space.

Adam Grant

Adam Grant seems like the closest thing to a celebrity in the fields of organizational psychology/development/behavior. And for good reason. He’s entertaining, insightful, and he presents ideas as accessible and actionable. Adam's keynote addressed innovation in business, noting that "businesses increasingly rely on innovation, and yet many work cultures disincentivize innovation." Here's what businesses can do to increase innovation:

  • Business managers can find places to encourage experimentation, creativity and failure.

  • Back to the Google study: create psychology safety in your organization. How?

    • Signal interest in upward feedback and criticism. Bridgewater's "radical transparency" is an interesting example of this. So is this hilarious short video of Wharton professors reading mean tweets from students.

    • Get team members to role-play a competitor working to “kill your company” because, “creativity is stronger on offense than defense.”

    • Don’t say, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

  • Do exit interviews shortly after entry (why learn once it’s too late?) to understand what new outsiders really think. 

  • Put your worst foot forward: a risky idea can seem much less risky when all of the risks are spelled out clearly. This is due to our availability bias; if the details of failure and success are clear and available, we find the prospect more believable than when trying to imagine conditions for success. This strategy has repeatedly worked on SharkTank, where prospective investors start flaunting their intelligence by talking about how marginal and fixable the problems associated with the pitch are.

  • Do away with the concept of “culture fit” because a) most work cultures are not unique, even if they think they are and b) it weeds out diversity of thought [what Tatyana would call conformity risk].

Tatyana Mamut

Tatyana’s name was one of the main reasons I attended the conference. I deeply admire her ability to talk about what are commonly and unfortunately viewed as “soft issues” in more pragmatic, bottom line terms. Highlights from her “Culture Risk” keynote follow below, or watch an abbreviated version of the same presentation.

  • “Culture is not kombucha on tap, foosball tables, or fun office furniture.”

  • “Culture is the foundation set up for your organization to be able to do what it wants to do.”

  • “Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast, culture is strategy.”

  • “Culture strategy is the thing that will ensure your culture achieves its goals.”

  • “Culture is greater than psychology because it determines the range of possibilities of behavior.”

  • There are five types of culture risk:

    • Scaling Risk - cultures naturally shift at different inflection points of growth (approximately 40, 150, and 700 people). Proactively managing these transitions is critical to ensuring quality performance in and across old and new work groups.

    • Fragmentation Risk - a clear example is the strained communication and processes common between departments, such as engineering and sales.

    • Attrition Risk - attrition is natural, but a real cost threat if culture is not managed proactively. This risk can be self-reinforcing when recruiting seeks to fill the exact type of candidate that left for cultural reasons. On the other hand, sometimes a big attrition wave can be helpful in establishing a new culture.

    • Conformity Risk - this is the business case for diversity and inclusion. “Conformity at higher levels of the organization is a significant business risk because it’s a communication disconnect from the employee front line and from the customer base.”

      • Merrill Lynch’s own internal research showed that Fortune 100’s with at least 25% women greatly outperformed the rest of the 100.

    • Stagnation Risk - Ossification of norms and processes according to the existing culture, often faced by more mature organizations, usually due to risk aversion.

Tatyana went on to prescribe a methodology for managing the above culture risks, which I’ll save for another time.

Lindsey McGregor

I was not aware of Lindsey’s work before the conference, but her concept of designing work around what she called TOMO, or “total motivation” (a modern iteration of psychology’s motivation theory) blew me away. I took copious notes and her presentation really warrants an entire blog post to summarize, but suffice for now to say that her work supports the management of culture-based attrition and stagnation risk. Lindsay’s new book Primed to Perform has since made it to the top of my list!

Al Adamsen

Al is a behavioral economist, coach and consultant. He shared his fascinating and traumatic life history and impressed upon us the need to design our organizations as places worth living in and sending our kids to (thank you). Al spoke about when and how to use data (and not be used by data) and towards that end he prescribes a model of talent assessment and development which he believes would be useful as a universal lens in hiring and general HR practice. He makes a good case!

 “Data strategy precedes analytics strategy.” - Al Adamsen

Linda Quarles

Linda is the director of strategy and organizational design at frog design, and at Culture First she gave a speech and facilitated an exercise around radical empathy. The process is a method to “change our perspectives from judgement to acceptance,” and involves reflecting somebody else’s experience in first person language. I was taken by how powerful it felt to be both on the giving and receiving end of this process.

“I’ve come to believe that I’ve never convince anyone of anything in my life. I am in the change business and I am NOT in the convincing business.” - Linda Quarles