Your company culture is what you collectively believe and — in practice — what you collectively do. It shapes how people work together, how you deal with problems that arise, how people feel when they meet someone from your company. Derived from a company culture is typically a set of values and beliefs, such as transparency, collaboration, or trust.

What do these values actually mean, though? If I’m a new employee coming into an organization, am I expected to know how to convey these values? No. Of course not. That’s why companies instill their cultural values in all kinds of different ways. For example, at Facebook the value “moving fast and breaking things” is introduced during onboarding. But instead of just telling people to “move fast and break things,” Facebook sends all new employees off for 6 weeks to literally code new things, break things, and learn from seasoned “fast movers and breakers”.

At Keen, we value introspection: the examining of one’s own mental and emotional processes. We believe this is important for sanity, harmony, and productivity in the workplace.

One way we support introspection is through a weekly activity called Anxious/Excited, where we all get together to share the things we’re anxious about (work-related or otherwise), along with the things we’re excited about. Anxious/Excited (A&E) is such an integral part of our culture that we frequently invite people to participate if they’re thinking about joining the company. It gives them a chance to see what we’re like in our most reflective moments and get a sense of what it would feel like to work here.

0_bYCzOIh9G6SZ-hMZ

I often tell people outside of Keen about this activity and the reaction I typically get is, “That’s great, but how do you scale that?” The answer: you don’t.

The commonly referenced “do things that don’t scale” for startup growth can apply to the expression of cultural values, too. What’s key to cultural scalability and success is a shared understanding of the company’s values and a commitment to revising and evolving how they’re expressed as the organization grows.

Sounds straightforward, but oftentimes organizations that should be working toward the same goals and values end up fighting over tactics, resulting in a toxic and unproductive environment.

Values > Tactics

When Keen was small (as in 6 employees working out of the founders’ living room), A&E was an excellent tactic for introspection. Everyone was working together day in and day out. Some days were stressful, some days were happy. Everyone was close. Taking time to share and reflect at the end of the day was not only valuable, it was easy.

We are now at 40 people, and as you can imagine, A&E is not as effective as it once was. Debates have emerged on “how do we scale A&E?” How do we recreate the feeling of safe space and intimacy that allows people to open up and be introspective?

In times like this it’s helpful to think about why we did A&E in the first place. If we look back to our value of introspection we can see this “scaling problem” from a different, more open lens. There may be a totally different and better way to support introspection at 40 people than 6, and yet another way to do it at 100, 200, and 1000. The key is stay committed to our values, and to evolving the way they’re expressed.

We’ve already evolved A&E to make it work better for more people:

  • Two time slots for A&E
  • Remote A&E (for our remote employees) + In-Person A&E

We’re also starting to think about other ways to support an introspective culture, such as:

  • Team-based A&E vs. the entire company
  • Company reflection time for personal journaling, or shared wiki/internal blog
  • Bringing in an onsite psychologist and coach to help talk through problems
  • Having a writer’s workshop to explore the issues and processes on our minds

The bottom line is: Don’t be afraid to let go of your cultural tactics. In fact, you should be constantly evaluating them. Are they still working? Do they still represent the value you intended? Be committed to evolving. Remember why you decided to implement an activity in the first place, even if that leads you to an entirely new approach.

How have you scaled your company’s culture and values? We’re still figuring this stuff out, and would love to hear your ideas. Feel free to tweet at me or share your thoughts in the comments below.