Igor Volzhanin
01.08.2019

We thought we didn’t need to define our culture. Here’s why we were wrong.

Defining company culture is crucial, yet it takes time to realise what it means to you. We look back at the journey Datasine took to define our culture.

We were probably not unique in thinking that culture doesn’t need to be defined when first starting a company. Companies in the early stages of development often don’t focus on culture because they believe other issues are more pressing. Building the product is more pressing, getting customers is more pressing, getting traction is more pressing. After all, we’re all painfully aware of that old adage that eight out of 10 startups fail within their first year. Focusing on a product that’s going to survive those odds can seem like the only thing that matters.

So when Datasine first began, culture was something that wasn’t really on the radar. With so few people in the company, we were laser-focused on one goal – traction. Culture seemed natural, like breathing. We only noticed we were missing it when that air was sucked out of the room: when the team grew and conflicts arose. 

Should we treat everyone the same, or make special accommodations? Should we focus on making the workplace ‘fun’, or getting things done at all costs? We had never asked ourselves these questions in the past, but without the answers, alignment and growth became impossible.

We thought we didn’t need to define our culture. Here’s why we were wrong.

What is company culture?

Let’s take a step back and talk about what culture is.

A quick Google rooted up about 426,000,000 results on what company culture means. Good  old Investopedia defines it as “the beliefs and behaviours that determine how a company’s employees and management interact” which broadly covers the bases. However, they go on to add that “culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time”. If we’ve learned anything from scaling our team, it’s that this organic growth of culture is not guaranteed. What’s more, assuming culture will just grow and develop naturally, and more importantly in a positive direction is naive. Leaving it be is a sure way to create conflict.

I personally preferred The Balance Careers definition: “Company culture is the personality of a company. It defines the environment in which employees work. Company culture includes a variety of elements, including work environment, company mission, value, ethics, expectations and goals.” When it came to defining our culture, it took a lot of concentrated effort to codify what we represent, what was important to us, what we’ve achieved so far and to settle on a model that everyone would agree with and thrive on.

The need for culture 

When defined and implemented correctly, company culture reduces employee turnover, supercharges employee satisfaction levels, improves workplace productivity, builds a healthy environment and results in the hiring of individuals who are a better cultural fit. It becomes an instrument for the all-important company alignment and sets a common language for everyone. 

When culture goes undefined, however, it can turn a work environment toxic, lead to improper hiring decisions, micromanagement, lack of accountability, poor internal communication, and misalignment – to name just a few. 

Now, I’ve already mentioned that without a clearly defined culture, we started to experience pushback and clashes. This happened at around the 12–15 employee mark. It took the hiring of an employee that did not share our unwritten – up to that point – culture to realise the immense importance of having it formally defined in some way. Once we realised that there was a culture mis-fit, we worked on defining it. 

We thought we didn’t need to define our culture. Here’s why we were wrong.

When culture is a clearly defined priority, a change happens to everyone. For us, this change happened after we parted ways with people who didn’t align with our values and ensured we brought our culture with us into the hiring process. Our team has since doubled in size and we’ve begun to see Datasine employees referencing our – their – culture in the work they do. 

And, most importantly, we are now surrounded by employees that are happy and driven, which has always been the most important thing to us.

So, how did we define our culture?

As soon as we’d realised that lack of defined culture is a problem, we also realised that everyone needed to be involved in defining it. Only 12% of executives believe their companies are driving the ‘right culture’, according to Deloitte. We knew we could do better than that.

Ultimately our culture is about our people. It took us all sitting down as a company to define what Datasine’s culture was. This was a process that took more than a month of interviews, meetings and workshops during which everyone in the company contributed to the creation of the culture document, which we then put down in writing as an internal deck. 

What was great about this process is that it was reflective of the culture in and of itself.

Today, we call these cultural values the ‘ABCDEs of Datasine’:

  • Adventure
  • Balance
  • Collaboration
  • Diversity
  • Ethics

With each employee bringing these values with them to work everyday, clashes have become much easier to resolve and alignment has become clearer, even as the team multiplies.

We thought we didn’t need to define our culture. Here’s why we were wrong.

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