How to Foster a Startup Culture: Part 2

Startup culture is a nebulous term. It means many things but it’s hard to define. It’s clear that the term grew out of a dissatisfaction with corporate culture, and probably with good reason. There is a clear distinction between Silicon Valley and corporate America, and it appears the culture difference is responsible.

Does culture drive financial performance? Yes. That’s what the research says, anyway. According to a study produced by MIT, the value of a company’s integrity (measured by survey responses) directly corresponded to quarterly deviations in profitability. Moreover, research conducted by John P. Kotter and James L. Heskett showed the average revenue growth of firms with performance-enhancing cultures was 682% over firms with without performance-enhancing cultures.

Perhaps our obsession with corporate culture might be justified. I’m convinced culture has a direct effect on company performance. It can boost morale by making the office environment more enjoyable, which translates into higher productivity. Here are three more tips on creating what we’ve come to understand as startup culture:

Create a Collaborative Space.

The physical environment of an office is a reflection of an organization’s culture. This is why I hate cubicles. Cattle stalls for the white collar, cubicles are the symbol of office drudgery.

The modern-day cubicle (originally called “the action desk”) was denounced by the man who actually created it, Robert Propst. While the original design for office workstations was meant to create open and flexible workspaces, companies would soon use them to box employees in to maximize on rising real estate costs. Three years before his death, Propst told the New York Times that ‘the cubicleizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

The workplace is evolving. Companies have begun to adapt the mentality that tech startups already seem to know: employees don’t like being tethered to a workstation. Allowing employees to select the space that best accommodates whatever task they’re working on, companies have begun to offer a mix of unassigned private offices, conference rooms, and formal and informal settings. With higher satisfaction levels in employees, the data doesn’t seem to mind, either.

While a collaborative workspace can mean many things, some of their key features include:

  1. An open office layout that encourages accidental interactions through open areas.
  2. Common areas such as cafeterias and other non-purpose areas that encourage workers to leave confined offices.
  3. An emphasis on areas that hold two or more people rather than single-occupancy offices.
  4. “Thinking” areas that encourage workers to do their thinking in the presence of other people.

Google has introduced another concept into their open workspace, “150 feet from food.” In their manhattan office, there is no point where an employee isn’t 150 feed from food. Whether employees are near a restaurant, a large cafeteria or a micro-kitchen, they’re encouraged to snack often. Google suggests that the snacking causes employees to have “unplanned collaborations” which increases their enjoyment, feeds motivation and causes greater productivity.

Manage employee energy, not time.

I worked in my uncle’s restaurant as a busboy when I was 12. During slow times, we were told “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Of course, I learned fast how to avoid that. Instead of finishing my work at normal speed, I learned I wouldn’t have to do other, less enjoyable things if I just worked slower. That paradigm made me less productive. In the end, those other things still weren’t clean.

When I entered the corporate world, I realized things weren’t much different. The people I worked with were under the same pressure to stay busy and were scolded if it looked like they weren’t doing anything. Of course, looking busy does nothing for the profitability of a company. The amount of time we spend on something has zero relevance to our productivity.

It’s time to rethink our workday. What if, instead of managing time, we managed the energy of our employees? I know it sounds strange. But, if the end goal is higher levels of productivity, what if we just encouraged healthier living?

At Brandcave, we’ve developed a 70/30 principle that governs our workday.  It’s by no means a new concept, but we’ve adapted it to our personal culture. In short, 70% of our workday is devoted to making and creating. It’s the tasks we do for our clients and it’s also business development. The other 30% goes to whatever makes us better at the 70%. For us, that translates to roughly two hours of our day spent learning, working out, reading or resting. It’s dramatically increased our personal moral and our ability to focus. I’m resolved; a culture devoted to our employees’ health pays dividends.

Inspire Creativity.

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

That’s a quote from Monty Python actor John Cleese during his 1991 lecture to a group of Norwegian graduates. His lecture, largely based on the research produced by Donald MacKinnon in the early 60s, reveals several interesting characteristics about creative people.

Some may come as a surprise.  First, creativity is almost totally unrelated to IQ (provided you are intelligent above a certain minimal level). MacKinnon showed in investigating scientists, architects, engineers and writers that those regarded by their peers as “most creative” were in no way whatsoever different in IQ from their less creative colleagues.

How where they different? Well, the most creative had simply acquired an ability of getting themselves into a particular mood, which allowed their natural creativity to function. This mood, or way of operating, is an ability to play and explore ideas – not for any immediate practical purpose but for enjoyment. Cleese refers to it as the “open” mode, which he defines as a relaxed, contemplative, more inclined to humor, and consequently more playful mood.

The open mode is something creative geniuses such as Alfred Hitchcock mastered. One of Hitcock’s regular co-writers described working with him on screen plays:

“When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘we’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’” And, of course, it always did.

Companies who value creativity should take careful measures to encourage their employees to enter the “open” mode when pondering a problem. It’s a top-down approach that requires executives and managers to change their paradigm about creativity, as it cannot be implemented without understanding it in theory.

It may be easier to tell you how to kill creativity, rather than inspire it.  Again, John Cleese articulately shares three tips on crushing creativity in the workplace:

  1. Allow subordinates no humor as it threatens your self-importance and especially your omniscience. Instead, we should treat all humor as frivolous or subversive.
  2. Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size, so don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ confidence.
  3. Demand that people should always be actually doing things. If you can’t anyone pondering, accuse them of laziness or indecision.