Importance of company culture, values and principles and example of Lingualeo
With this post, I would like to start a series of posts analyzing the way different companies define and declare their culture.
They say, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." A well-established culture truly is a powerful tool that helps to keep the way various challenges are addressed consistent, increases autonomy, and saves time in making decisions. I'm saying "well-established" because culture exists regardless of whether you put effort into shaping it or not. Same as if you don't have a dress code, people won't come to the office naked; if there is no guidance on company culture, they will contribute with their mindset to an overall company culture.
In small companies, alignment happens naturally. When everyone talks to everyone any mindset differences are surfaced and discussed early. When forming a team, people tend to find similar-minded peers. And if it happens that they don't share the same mindset and cannot align on it, they don't survive long together.
When a company grows, it becomes gradually harder to maintain a consistent mindset across loosely coupled parts of the bigger organization. In cases of hypergrowth, company culture can be considerably diluted as new joiners do not always have a chance to work with culture carriers and can even form their own culture in a newly created department.
To handle this problem, some kind of written culture manifestation is created. It is quite often called "values and principles". It may also be published in the shape of an onboarding material (e.g., Valve's Handbook for New Employees) and literally can be called "manifest" (e.g., Agile Manifesto - it is not a company's artifact, though it is a set of values and principles for particular software development culture).
Such a document aims to provide high-level guidance without detailed instructions for any possible scenario. It is also often publicly available and used as company identity material and advertising / setting expectations for the new hires. This gives an excellent opportunity to analyze and compare different formats, focus, and essences in how different companies define them.
The document usually (though not always) is very concise and follows a pyramid structure, starting with the highest abstraction level of "values" and building on top of that into more details, defining principles, or even specific rules. It is common to define either of those levels as a set of rules of precedence (smth. over smth.). The classic example from Agile Manifesto: "Value individuals and interactions over processes and tools".
Example of Lingualeo
I wanted to start with this example for two reasons:
This is the first company I've faced explicitly formulated culture
The way it was defined was very short, which makes it an easy start for such a blog post format
Lingualeo Values, in their first version, were defined as three different aspects of human interaction sorted in the priority order:
I remember there were more detailed documents describing it. But I don't have any at this point, so I'll do my best to explain those principles and their motivation in my own words.
Team members at Lingualeo base their interactions on the principle of mutual respect. We can disagree, but we care to express our disagreement in a respectful way. We also value each other's efforts in growing the product and extending its functionality.
Why does it matter? The team was built of very young and motivated people, so we quite often went into very heated discussions about things. Without a principle of mutual respect, those discussions could easily grow into conflicts and develop into long-term tension between team members, which would be a burden that would slow us down to complete paralysis.
We trust each other in the way we do work and make decisions.
Why does it matter? Trust is a foundation of delegation and autonomy. If you can't trust your peer, you would have constant overhead to cross-check and doubt the decisions before their impact can be measured.
We support each other and help to achieve goals by resolving dependencies in a timely manner.
Why does it matter? Even in the early days, we were 2-3 teams. Each of the teams took care of the specific area of the product. Sharing a common codebase, we had dependencies, and without being able to resolve them, we couldn't advance in our own goals.
This is the most compact value system (company culture definition) I have ever worked with, and of course, the way we worked was not defined only by these three principles. But I like the fact that being short, it focuses on human aspects that can have a significant influence on the way people interact within an organization and the achievements of the team. The culture remained mostly unchanged for the 3.5 years I worked at that company during its growth from 10 to about 100 people, acquiring about 15 Million users worldwide.