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Handcrafting Company Culture: Fixate’s Approach

June 15, 2017 - Startups -
By: Patrick O'Fallon

Culture is a critical component to the success of the modern company. It not only identifies key aspects of what the company is and stands for, but also subtly tells a story of where the company has come from and where it is headed. However, many seem to either lose a grasp of what their culture is, or forget to identify key factors before it’s too late, and the company has already started to grow up. At Fixate, we just completed an exercise in identifying, deep learning, exploring and handcrafting our key identities and factors that make up our culture.

The Why

There are many reasons why companies start the process of identifying culture. At Fixate, identifying our culture was important prior to other stakeholders being introduced into our growing startup. Our culture’s attributes will become the pillars that support how we scale, hire, measure, reward and retain employees, as well as protect what key aspects of our organization need to be upheld as new stakeholders join our team. As an example, as investors show interest in our company, the Fixate culture serves as a compass to help us protect key aspects of our company that are core to building our business. Establishing these baseline goals prior to undertaking cultural discovery not only helps establish the “why” for the management team, but illustrates to the rest of the company just how important this exercise is.

Discovery

To start the discovery process, we curated seven questions for our core team interviews. The intent of these questions was to engage the team and reveal any and all ideas our core team currently has on the subject of Fixate’s culture. Then we held one-on-one meetings with every member of our core team, but did not previously disclose the intent of the meeting. By surprising individuals with the meeting topic, we were hoping to get more visceral answers versus rehearsed answers. And we wanted to turn it into a real-time discovery exercise for each member of the team. This strategy ended up being incredibly successful, and set the stage for organic, engaging, and non-threatening discovery for everyone involved. We designated 30 minutes to one hour to give interviewees the flexibility for direct answers, as well as time to narrate creative answers. As we started the one-on-one process, we disclosed the goals of the process prior to diving into the questions—to take away the suspense and get interviewees’ buy-in. Our team immediately understood why we were having the meeting, and what we hoped to get from the process. Here are the questions we asked:

  • If you were to describe Fixate’s culture, what would it be?
  • What makes you feel successful in the company?
  • What do you believe the “core piece” is of who we are at Fixate?
  • How would you describe Fixate’s identity?
  • How do you see your role in creating Fixate’s identity?
  • As we evolve, are there cultural aspects that you would like to protect or see in the future?
  • Can you identify a core set of principles to define how we grow, hire/fire, and scale?

The first question dove right in and hit the interviewees with identifying our culture. While at first this may seem too broad, the intent was to allow the interviewees a chance to openly narrate and get their creative mind activated. Next, we avoided strategic company culture questions and asked specific questions about the interviewees’ successful experiences in the company. These questions were incredibly helpful, as unanimously all interviewees discussed what parts of their jobs make them feel successful, what aspects of our team make them feel successful, and what aspects of our company make them feel supported and successful. After asking such specific questions, we were surprised at just how comprehensive our discoveries were.

The Algorithm

After initiating the narrative, then discussing personal experiences, it was time to get specific and get one-word or few-word mantras that describe Fixate’s identity. These one-word/few-word identity tags were then used to go through all of the other answers from the interviews and determine a frequency of the most commonly used words and associations from our interviews.

To complete the process, we curated questions to target our core team’s inner “builder” and inner “protector.” The inner builder/protector balance is important for all employees to keep a pulse on, especially in a startup. By discovering a set of principles that define what our core team hopes to protect as well as build, we also discovered key aspects of our culture that have gotten us to this point, and what will propel us in the future.

At our last QBR, we presented our findings from the process, including the most commonly used words and associations. We left it open at that point to see if there were any changes or discrepancies as a group that simply don’t make sense. In our case, we did not identify any new aspects as a group, but had a ton of fun discussing the discoveries and why they made it to the cultural presentation.

The Outcome

Some of the results of the process for Fixate were keywords, like: supportive, ever-changing, pragmatic, results-oriented, agile, transparent, autonomy, authentic, deep expertise, and tribal. As you can see, these identity aspects span the spectrum of personal “support” and “deep expertise” more related to team and company-wide aspects such as “results-oriented,” “pragmatic,” and “authentic.” From the collected Fixate Identity aspects, we can then derive actionable declarations of our culture, such as:

  • We are unique, execution-driven, and results-oriented.
  • We believe in deep expertise and are authentic.
  • We are open and supportive while preserving autonomy and individualism.
  • Our team is agile and fun while maintaining high integrity with each other, contributors, and customers.

As a startup, it is extremely difficult to find time to execute on introspective projects such as defining our culture. However, handcrafting our culture at this point in our company’s existence is one of the most important duties we could complete. The mission was indeed a success, and our expectations were exceeded. As a company, we now have a unified cultural identity that will help us bring on the right team members and stakeholders, as well as drive our future success.


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Patrick O’Fallon is a Senior Ops Manager and Consultant for Allen Technology Advising in Denver, Colorado. Serving both public and private organizations, Patrick serves as an outsourced CIO to provide strategic consulting with specialized insight into the ever changing SecOps landscape. A graduate from Regis University with a degree in Computer Science, Patrick has a wide breadth of knowledge to support BiModal ITOps organizations by leveraging DevOps and SecOps expertise combined with over 14 years of ITOps experience.