One of the biggest concerns companies have when looking to scale up in size is being able to do it with their culture intact. Yet, it’s entirely possible with a team-first focus, rather than a top-down approach.
With any period of rapid growth comes the threat of losing control of company culture.
There’s an adage in Sun Tzu’s Art of War that applies to leading organizations through change: control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few. It is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.
Despite this wisdom, many companies fall into the trap of thinking that company culture is uniform, fixed and needs protecting from on-high. But culture is co-created by all the people in a business. Just as products and business models evolve, so do cultures. Maintaining a healthy culture necessitates moving with the times and being able to adapt to new challenges. Top-down edicts rarely help, which is why we advocate a team-based approach, a process that is fluid, responsive and ultimately scalable.
From our research, we know that a company has a vast array of microcultures. No two teams are the same because of how individuals and teams associate and work with each other. Top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches will be hit-and-miss, and at worse, annoy everyone.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for senior management to influence culture. They are there to set basic cultural norms and expectation, and the hiring process is a crucial way to ensure new people are a good fit (though this comes with the caveat — as the late Tony Hsieh once said, “If you hire for culture, you must fire for culture too.”) Undeniably top-down approaches are good at defining strategy and outlining major initiatives; however, execution of strategy is always done at the team level. The daily activities of the business happen on a team level, at a real-time pace.
Senior leaders need to think of themselves as catalysts – bringing the right process, people, meeting rituals and goals together for success. Having a myriad of micro-cultures allows for adaptation as well as ensuring a more human experience, especially as organizations seek to scale. In that sense, company leaders should seek to inspire and empower their people to make changes, not compel them.
Teams are the engines of change in a company. It’s where the real heavy lifting gets done and where employee experience really happens. People’s experience of work is very proximal — they are influenced much more by the people they work with (including a line manager) than they are by the whole organization and culture. And as the saying goes, people join companies but leave managers.
That means that it’s incredibly important to get the team level right.
One of the best examples of a business that has successfully and rapidly scaled using teams as the foundation is the Dutch community healthcare provider, Buurtzorg. Founded in 2007 by Jos de Blok, a disenchanted nurse, he felt the industry had become like a manufacturing assembly line, with nurses assigned specific jobs and given strict quotas of how many minutes they could spend with each patient. Instead of a top-down approach, he championed small teams of self-organising nurses – with a strict rule that as a team grew to 10+ people, it had to split into two.
The result? Buurtzorg grew from zero to a turnover of $275million in eight years. It now has over 9,000 employees and is the largest healthcare provider in the Netherlands, 3x the size of its nearest competitor. Buurtzorg’s approach ensures that positivity and success are contagious — they were voted best employer across four consecutive years in the Netherlands.
The UK High Street shoe repair chain, Timpsons, is another example of success in this approach. Using an ‘upside down’ management policy, frontline workers were encouraged to take initiative at a store level. They are given the empowering instruction, “If something works, tell me; if it doesn’t, stop.” This gives employees the freedom to do what they feel is right. With this approach, Timpsons grew from 300 branches and £40m in sales in 1998 to 2,120 branches and over £330m in sales by 2018.
When one team does well, it has an influence on the other teams around them. Creativity spreads and invites more innovation, quickly becoming a virtuous cycle. Top-down directives seldom achieve this. Buurtzorg and Timpsons show that the team is the building block of any organization, establishing cultural norms that lead to healthy growth. Any organization looking to scale and keep its culture intact would be wise to focus on the team level and establish company-wide rituals and simple rules. Ideally, these would stimulate conversations and generate actionable insights on the team level.
So, how can a company scale with their culture intact? It’s easy to say ‘adopt a team focus’, but what does that look like? Our Five Ways to Happiness at Work framework gives us insights on how this can happen.
If the team is the foundation of a company, then the relationship between team members is the building block of the team. Take time to get to know new people and welcome them into your ‘family.’ Without this extra touch, scaling efforts can fall apart very quickly as new people become isolated and left out.
There’s nothing that can cripple scaling efforts more than the feeling that things are not fair. Whether integrating new recruits or welcoming back old colleagues from extended furlough, the risk of perceived unfairness is high at the moment. To combat this, ensure everyone has a voice and encourage them to speak freely in their teams.
Scaling is a period of growth and trying new things. Don’t be afraid to give your teams the freedom to experiment — and especially don’t punish them for it. There are beautiful ideas out there. It’s as important to celebrate the learnings from mistakes as it is the wins.
Scaling needs feedback to guide the growth. As everyone is learning quickly and things are in flux, it’s important to set up cultural boundaries and give guidance on processes and whether things are going right. Remember, one of the best things you can do in a company is to build a positive feedback loop.
New faces and new places can be a bewildering part of scaling for employees. It’s important that you lift the vision of everyone involved so they know what they are building. They shouldn’t just see the bricks, but the cathedral as well. Communicate the social purpose of your company. What problems are you trying to solve? Where are you trying to go? People get more excited about their roles when they know the vision and that they’re not just a cog in a machine to make investors rich.
Regardless of the industry or size of company, every business must learn how to help its people work together at the team level. And when they learn how to do this well, the lessons will bubble up through the organization and bring success, productivity and happiness for all.
Friday Pulse is designed for senior leaders to track the wellbeing of all their teams as a company scales and provide real-time, actionable insights on the teams that are struggling. With our Culture Profiles, you’ll be able to see how well new people are integrating into your company.