May 07, 2014

Growing a Culture

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast"
- Peter Drucker

Even before I learnt of this quote, I was generally of the impression that the culture of a company, or organisation, was an important part of how it operated or what it could achieve. However, as that sentence shows, Peter Drucker did a much better job of summing it up.

Setting, or guiding, the culture and ethos of the space is something I've consciously tried to influence ever since we started DoES Liverpool back in 2011. Not (I hope) in a controlling or machiavellian way, but it's something I have an awareness of in choosing some of the ways I respond to events.

Culture is important because, as Scott Berkun says (and you should go read that link, it's very good. I'll wait...), it comes from what you do, not from what you say. The culture of somewhere is built from the actions of the people who inhabit that space.

The culture of a group also changes over time, as it grows and as different people join or leave the mix. This is both a good thing - as it means that there's scope to "fix" things that aren't helping the group - and a "bad" thing - as it means that looking after the culture is more akin to gardening than carving inscriptions into stone.

Which means that to have a lasting effect on a culture, you need to be in it for the long-term. This is why leaders of a startup community "must have a long-term commitment".

I think we've done a reasonable job at setting the right sort of culture at DoES Liverpool. We don't always get it right, but I think in general we've got a welcoming and inclusive vibe with an emphasis on doing rather than talking, and an appetite for trying new things and helping pick each other up and get us back on track if they fail.

The elusive insight in all this is how do you make it scale? Specifically, how can you scale it more quickly and effectively? There is much to do, and we are all impatient to have more impact, more quickly.

That said, I'm wary of growing the community too quickly. If you want to do things differently, which almost by definition we are if we want things to change, then you need to protect and nurture the culture as it grows. Adding too many new people will, if you're not careful, create a completely new culture which will swamp the existing one - and the chances are the "new" culture will be some strain of the local status quo.

I watched this happen at STNC when we doubled the size of the company in six months or so, and wasted a lot of time and effort reintegrating it into a single company. DoES' continual slow, steady growth means we aren't as well known in the city as we could, or possibly should, be, but it also means we've had time to find our feet.

Culture is all about the people. And that's why it's so difficult to influence with capital expenditure or money. Which is a shame, because that seems to be the standard approach taken by anyone charged with trying to encourage a more entrepreneurial culture. The country is littered with deserted office buildings full of expensive, underused machinery and equipment, because we keep creating the symptoms of successful places under the illusion that we're recreating the causes. Cambridge isn't full of startups and tech companies because it's got a science park; it has a science park because it's full of companies who'd rather be right in the city centre, but the colleges own all the land and property and don't want to ruin all the old buildings with office blocks.

Did I mention that culture is all about the people? That's also why you can't write a recipe to explain how to seed the rest of the city, or country, or planet, with DoES outposts. Or at least, if you did, it would be something along the lines of:

  1. Find the interesting people who live locally, and who'd be likely to commit to five or ten years working at it.
  2. Pay for them to live in Liverpool and have a desk at DoES Liverpool.
  3. Then give them their head to return home and start something of their own.

None of which is me trying to claim that we're particularly special, or different. Just that what makes DoES DoES is something that's nebulous and almost impossible to write down (just look at how much trouble I'm having...). It's something you get infected with through repeated exposure to other carriers, by observing what they do, how they interact, through a hundred different incidental conversations, accumulated over time.

This recent blog post about spread and scale, from the Mindlab blog, does an excellent job of explaining these challenges.

So, how to move forward?

Keep on doing. Success will be mostly down to hard work and persistence, as ever.

On top of that, we should endeavour to share more of what we're up to, and how that fares. Not sharing best practice, but trying to share as much practice as possible and reporting what has and hasn't worked for us. Hopefully that will encourage others to share their experiences, and between us we can spark copying and remixing our ideas and experiments.

Posted by Adrian at May 7, 2014 01:53 PM | TrackBack

This blog post is on the personal blog of Adrian McEwen. If you want to explore the site a bit further, it might be worth having a look at the most recent entries or look through the archives or categories over on the left.

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I think this also means that we need less meetings and fora for discussing things that *ought* to be done and more doing. We need some way of measuring what people *do*, not what they say.

Posted by: Francis Fish at May 13, 2014 03:56 PM
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