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Creating great culture – where to start

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Over the last three years, I’ve been part of a journey to shape, design, and grow the business and products at Hive. I’ve been fortunate to experience a variety of evolutions, to meet and collaborate with some very talented folks; to be in a leadership role and help develop a brilliant design and research department. I’m now moving onto a new adventure, and before I do, I wanted to take some time to reflect and ask myself “what have I loved the most?” Without question — Hive’s culture.

Whilst I could never claim to be at the heart of the culture (it is by no means down to one or a few), as a leader I have been heavily involved; from creating and growing the Product Design team, to working with the senior leadership team to design and define the company's vision and cultural direction. I’m no expert: I hold no degree in Psychology, no MBA, but I’m passionate about creating brilliant human experiences; from apps to organisations. For me, the success of both hinges on culture.

On the tech and design scene, we’re used to seeing companies promote themselves as having ‘great culture’. Offering attractive benefits, free meals, beer fridges, ping-pong and foosball tables, popcorn machines, and more. Whilst I can’t deny all of these add some value and they look attractive outside in, we have to ask, do these benefits really create a great culture? What about the moments when the workloads just feel too much? When a family member isn’t well? When s**t hits the fan? What defines great culture when we remove the gloss and gimmicks and look at the underlying human experience?

This is the question that has sat at the heart of my journey at Hive. It’s the question I ask when creating an app feature, how I choose a colour or surface finish on a piece of hardware, and every time I think about my team. Culture is all about the experience of being in the company — it’s how we operate, how we converse, how to describe our jobs to our friends and family, and it’s why we go home feeling tired or energised.

As we’ve developed the team over the last few years, we’ve remained focused on three key areas: Purpose, People, and Process.

Purpose

One of the biggest pain points I’ve observed, personally experienced, and heard complaints about from peers across many other companies is the “lack of purpose.” There are few things so fundamental to our wellbeing as having a north-star; a cause to rally around, and clarity about what we need to achieve. Defining the purpose is the foundation of everything else. It allows us to discuss values, principles, set objectives, measure our work, define who we are as a business. Yet, so many seem to forget about it.

When we founded the Product Design team at Hive, we knew that the culture would mean everything, and so we began with understanding our role, our vision, our purpose. We did this by researching, speaking with stakeholders, but fundamentally by working as a team. It would, in theory, have been faster for me to go off into a room and create an attractive line or two, or bring in a consultant to wordsmith it, but this would have failed. Defining the purpose needs buy-in. It needs not only to be understood but felt, to be believed in. For us, this means co-creating it. In the great words of Simon Sinek, “start with why.” 


People

Organisations, leaders, and even peers can become so focused on the deliverables, they forget about what defines the heart and soul of a team. It’s people. How an individual feels and what they experience permeates the fabric of the business. It affects those to their left and right, from cleaner, receptionist to the managing director — atmosphere, attitude, and behavior can pull down a once-great business, or mould it into something that inspires us.

To think people first isn’t without its challenges. Pressures in the board room or at home can cloud perspective and push our buttons in all the wrong ways, leaving us open to seeing colleagues as simply that. We can find ourselves forgetting about the world outside the bubble and failing to see the human side of things. If design thinking has taught us one thing, it’s to walk in the shoes of others, to see their perspective and to care. To consider emotion and offer support. This is what we defined as a focus on people. 

Creating a genuine culture — where people have respect, where they spontaneously help each other to solve problems, where work improves because many great minds have shaped it. 


Process

No business can run without process, but how we define and design those processes will determine the success of the organization.

How we make decisions, how we hire, how to support, how we communicate, how we produce work — all have a real effect. I can’t emphasize enough how something as simple as software licenses (or the lack of) can impact the atmosphere and the productivity of a design team. Get these small elements wrong and we have a culture of “we have so many f***ing meetings” or “why are IT torturing us with this tech?” It can be death by a thousand cuts. So beyond fixing technical or procurement issues, what do we need to focus on?


Hiring

Finding talent, securing it, and fostering it is one of the greatest challenges we face. It’s also one of the best opportunities to evolve our businesses. Instead of looking for the “cultural fit” or the most impressive degree on a CV, we start by getting to know the person (their attitude, perspectives, and potential) and we’re honest about who we are and the challenges we face. We look for “cultural ads” — people who can bring new viewpoints, experiences, and capabilities that complement and support the culture we have and improve it.


Assessing

Having a clear process for understanding the positives and negatives of a project is key in a lean/agile organization. Within design, it can be hard to convince the board — to argue why something should look a certain way or why the choice of CMF (colour, material, finish) is worth the extra $5 per unit. However, when we establish a framework, outline the purpose, principles, and goals we can massively reduce the friction and pain often experienced in making design decisions. The same approach can be applied to nearly anything I’ve experienced; have a simple, honest, and clear framework and use it to fairly review and recommend.


Nurturing

Like any product or brand, we can’t expect talent to stand still. In fact, as businesses, we often promote how focused we are on professional development, yet so many of us often feel the development opportunities offered are irrelevant and, therefore, become unwanted. We can address this by truly getting to know the individuals we’re trying to support, to understand the opportunities, and then secure the right training.

In our team, we approached nurture in multiple-ways — from running cultural and social events, to doing field trips to the Design Museum or V&A, to getting access to the right (defined as supporting the individual's skills, and aligning to business needs) meet-ups, conferences or online courses and, most importantly from my perspective, by listening to and observing the behaviors of each team member. To be there to listen when something challenging happened in their personal life, or to give them clear feedback and guidance on how to handle a situation the next time around.

Recognising

One of the greatest failures I’ve seen and felt is when peers or team members have not been recognized for their efforts and contributions. We’re paid for our time, but time is so precious it leaves its mark upon us; it makes the work feel personal, part of us (for better or worse). When people don’t feel seen at the end of it, we can all too easily feel the energy go south.

A kind word, an honest pat on the back, a mention of the individual in front of the wider team or board goes such a long way and can completely transform how that person feels about their efforts and how a team feels about their culture. All we have to do is to remember to say, “thank you.”

Connecting

How we run meetings, how we communicate, when and how often, all contribute to the feel of a business. So often, we seem to get this wrong. Many of us live or have lived in organizations where meetings are soulless, repetitive (although repetition can sometimes be a good thing), and indecisive. They are all about creating connections, between a stakeholder and an idea, a board and a decision, a designer and product manager.

It’s all about bringing people together and connecting the things that need to happen for us to move forward. How we construct, manage, and run these activities defines a large part of who the business is. For me, it was about flipping script — we replaced status updates with creative discussions, design reviews, and insight downloads. In the pre-COVID world, I’d treat the team to coffee and pastry because I wanted a 9 am Monday morning meeting to be caring and energetic (caffeine and sugar, of course, help). In the COVID world, I factor in a portion of the meeting to share personal stories, tell jokes, and listen to what’s on people's minds.


For me, great culture isn’t about having an Xbox in the studio, or burgers on Friday (though they aren’t bad things either). At its heart, great culture is all about the why and how we do something, which in turn defines what we do. Designing and developing a great culture isn’t easy. It takes time. But it's also incredibly rewarding and it is fundamental to creating a business we are proud to work for.

If there’s one simple phrase you need to keep in mind when creating culture, and it’s something nearly all of us are taught as kids, “treat others, as you wish to be treated.” When you do, the results can be amazing.  

A few of my favourite reads on this topic

Delivering Happiness - Tony Hsieh

Start With Why - Simon Sinek

Creative Inc - Ed Catmull

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