Using culture to scale up: from startup to powerhouse

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It is an exciting time for Canadian technology startups. Global tech giants, like Facebook, Samsung, and Uber are establishing research labs in Canada. The venture capital funding of AI is reaching unexpected heights. And investments in new and noteworthy Canadian tech companies continue to grow, not to mention the recent federal funding of superclusters that will spur all kinds of new innovation. The Canadian tech startup industry has been gaining momentum and is showing exciting prospects for the Canadian economy.

Scaling up has traditionally been a challenge for Canadian startups—until now. The challenge is being addressed with increased government funding, a shift towards commercialization, and a go-to market attitude from a research focused approach. This unique combination, and moment in time, is finally giving Canadian startups a chance to properly compete in the global race.

With the hype of startup growth comes an aggressive competition for talent. We operate in a global market with fierce competitors in the US and China, among other markets, where attractive compensation packages are offered and are hard to resist. While our winters may not be the most charming, other factors like national loyalty, our accommodating politics, and lifestyle seem to play a major role in persuading young tech workers to stay and luring international talent to Canadian cities.

A startup’s culture makes a big difference in the attraction of talent

Startups have long held appeal, especially within the new generation of talent. They are certainly the most attractive work environment for millennials, and this is backed up by a plethora of research. Whether millenials are fascinated by the reminiscent story of founders launching a company from their basement or the image of an open space with ping-pong tables, bean bags, flexible work schedules, and a team of cool folks, truth be told, startups have a “je ne sais quoi” that is hard to resist.

What makes startup culture so unique, anyway? Beyond doubt, startups are a collaborative power dynamic of people with entrepreneurial qualities. They are distinguished by their quick and organic movements through decision making, their bias towards action, and their penchant for experimentation and a beginner’s mindset that enables them to thrive. All of these unique qualities define the great startup culture. They demonstrate what is really required to drive true innovation work—a collective of behaviours and dispositions shared by a group of people, a whole, a team.

Such a culture can easily get disrupted, especially when growth happens rapidly. A dynamic culture is also threatened by the introduction of new or foreign structures.

For startups, growing the team means growing impact and presence, in addition to accelerating the move towards delivering the services and products in the actual marketplace.

For startups, growing the team means growing impact and presence, in addition to accelerating the move towards delivering the services and products in the actual marketplace. When growth is imminent, change is inevitable. It’s no secret that growing a company can pose a serious threat to its culture. But how can we ensure that this change doesn’t slow down a startup’s innovation culture, and that a new culture doesn’t get paralyzed by large organization bureaucracy, or worse, get lost in total chaos?

The “Growth Pain” in startups and the culture chasm that can emerge are common themes in many of the conversations I am having with peers and practitioners working in the innovation and tech industry.

The discomfort experienced through periods of change is not a startup myth, or simply a jargony term. It is a real and ever-present challenge that will either make or break the transition from the early days of a startup to the foundations of a full-fledged, powerhouse company.

How can startups grow without breaking their cherished culture?

It’s easy—know what your culture is, and navigate it toward the change you want. But, how?

At The Moment, we have designed a tool called The Culture Scan, which helps organizations visualize both their current lived culture, and their future desired culture. Visualizing culture is an essential step in helping organizations map and understand the complexity that encompasses the unwritten rules of “how we do things around here.” But before you can intervene to make the necessary changes, you have to know what building blocks currently exist that make up your culture—not properly understanding the current culture is among the common pitfalls that many organizations make. Only by understanding the realities of the existing organization culture (or lived culture) can you then start to get specific about what to amplify, change, and build.

Once you understand what kind of culture currently exists, you can start to map out the culture that you desire. Defining the values and supporting tenants for your desired culture goes a long way to producing the right mix, but it isn’t everything; you must activate those elements within the organization’s culture, and intervene when necessary. The future culture, or desired culture, becomes the benchmark against which you can begin to track the fitness of your organization’s progress.

So, as you’re gearing up for rapid growth take a minute to follow some simple steps which will help protect—and actively shape—that startup culture you desire.

1- Reveal your unspoken rules

The social contract that develops between a small group of people working relentlessly together to get their business off the ground constitutes a major pillar of the company’s culture. Growing simply requires articulating these unspoken rules so larger numbers of people can understand them and repeat them.

For example if “Taking Risks” is something that the founders did and believed in, and they deem it important for the organization’s continued success, including it as a desired behaviour will not only be a reflection of the good days but will act as an invitation to team members to embody this principle in the work they do. It is important to define what is meant by taking risks, and any parameters around the concept, but stating that tenant as part of your culture will help to name and shape that behaviour moving forward.

These unspoken rules, once revealed, will constitute the elements of the Behaviours and Dynamics that you would like to encourage and see the team demonstrate.

2- Show what you are made of

It’s essential for leaders to take the time to decide the values that the team will come together around and the rules that they themselves want to abide by. After all, the core culture will emerge from actions and learned behaviours demonstrated by the core leadership team. Living your values day in, day out, is what you can rely on as you deliver on work, grow the team, and achieve the collective purpose.

For example, If “Mindfulness” is a core value to your organization, you will want to enable the team to make room to practice mindfulness in their daily activities, to embody it in their internal and external interactions, and to design needed interventions when this value is not manifesting.

These codes of behaviour will set the standards and expectations for the Activities and Values that determine the team’s interactions, where they spend their time, and how they spend it individually and collectively.

3- Fortify your innovation foundation

Naturally, startups are at an advantage to make radical innovation happen. They exist for the primary purpose of bringing breakthrough ideas to market. As the organization grows, it is critical to remember the founding makeup of the culture and structures that drive the innovation efforts and enable groundbreaking ideas to move through the funnel.

For example, if “Agile” is an approach that has proved essential in facing unpredictable and shifting conditions in the market, it only makes sense to codify this practice as the organization scales up. The growing team will require essential training, methods, and roles to organize projects in sprints and understand the priorities of Agile working methods.

Understanding and accounting for the ways in which your organizations works, both in practices and physical structures, will inform the Infrastructure and Structures that create the foundation to enable true innovation work.

Startups can leverage The Culture Scan as a tool to create a thoughtful visualization that reflects how your organization already operates and how you would like it to evolve. You can enable the team to continue executing in ways that have already proved effective and grow in ways that amplify the team’s readiness to continuously innovate in uncertain futures.

Once you create your Culture Scan

1- Use it to track your culture’s fitness

Culture is dynamic rather than static and therefore complex, sometimes even slippery. It changes all the time in subtle and palpable ways. Some say that culture is difficult to quantify—although we would argue otherwise. It is critical for organizations going through growth and change to continuously keep an eye on signals. They should collect evidence on how the organization is performing, and strike a balance between the push towards growth and maintaining a steady state.

People experience cultural systems in a variety of ways, interacting and communicating from various backgrounds and biases. When given an opportunity to reflect and report back, individuals often paint a clear picture of how they are feeling and what they are thinking regarding their organization’s culture, and specifically the elements that constitute the Culture Scan.

Key point: Your people are key to your startup’s success. Activate the right culture with and for them to help build a place that cultivates the activities, values, and behaviours you choose to uphold.

2- Use it to hire and onboard your new talent

I don’t need to make the case for “hiring for culture”. As we move from the knowledge capital era into the human capital era, a tool such as the Culture Scan brings so much value to your organization. Sharing a visual system that captures not only the elements of culture, but also reveals how the team is performing on each level, is a powerful way to onboard and engage new teammates.

It’s important to remember that your cultural elements aren’t static. As you add new people to the mix and develop a better understanding of your company, growing your culture will evolve and change. The Culture Scan will nudge your growth in the direction of your choosing and reflect the change.

Key Point: As your startup grows rapidly—don’t lose touch with your roots; integrate new team members into your culture by showing them exactly what it is, and where it is heading.

So what’s next?

Managing growth in a startup can sometimes be daunting for leaders. Growth is a messy process. Staying true to the original culture is often the biggest challenge for growing startups. Maintaining a sense of authenticity is also a way to attract new and fresh talent whose values align with the clearly articulated culture. Use The Culture Scan to build on the existing culture, and design a system that lets the organization adapt and grow.

If you’re earlier in your startup growth, and need to get your idea or small organization ready for investors, check out Deep Dive.

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