While I was hunkered down surviving Hurricane Florence, I had further opportunity to reflect on my principles as an entrepreneur. In the first part of this brief series on Mindful Entrepreneurship, I laid out my keys to the entrepreneurial process. In this second part, I will focus on culture.
- Culture matters a lot. In my experience, ventures don’t succeed or fail because of business models or technologies but rather because of people. Creating a culture of exploration and freedom to experiment is key to any learning organization, but especially to a startup.
- A startup’s culture must free its employees to take big swings and to risk failure. A startup can’t “play scared,” but rather must be open to failure. The key is to fail quickly, fail cheaply, and – most importantly – fail mindfully, learning and adapting through the process.
- A startup is a learning organization and learning is its primary function. It is essentially a neural network programming itself and reprogramming itself through interactions with the market. Learning isn’t a black magic buzz word, though; it is a process that can be measured. I find one of the best ways to tune a culture’s learning orientation is to use performance metrics to track the rate – hypotheses tested per unit time and cycle time per hypothesis test – and efficacy – hypotheses validated over time – of its learning processes. Fancy people call this “innovation accounting.” To me it’s just measuring the processes that are vital to the success of the venture.
- An absolutely crucial cultural element of any learning organization is psychological safety. In a psychologically safe environment, team members regardless of level feel free to challenge assumptions, to critique initiatives, and to risk failure. Psychological safety can be measured and I am a proponent of assessing it frequently.
- Learning organizations need a healthy dose of skepticism, without which it is easy to get caught up in zeitgeist or invest in scaling unvalidated business models. A simple tool I use to foster a culture of skepticism is frequently asking, “Why?” This challenges team members to focus on their evidence – not their conclusions – and demonstrates that it is OK to ask to see that evidence and debate whether it really does lead to that conclusion. Especially with new team members, I will often ask, “Why,” about my own ideas to accelerate their onboarding into a skeptical culture.
- Skepticism goes a long way toward combating groupthink, but I also believe in the value of diverse teams. Research shows time and again that diverse teams make better decisions than homogeneous teams and, more importantly for a startup, diversity brings inherent differences in perspective that are crucial for a startup searching for a path through the infinite, unknowable future.
- Contrary to much of the current startup mythos, I believe in a startup culture of work-life harmony rather than hyperwork. Balanced, well rested team members work more productively, stick around longer, and generate better insights than those who are overstretched. I try to foster intentional breaks during the work day, have walking meetings when possible, and adopt very open policies regarding hours, leave, etc. (I’ve always been inspired by the Netflix culture policy.)
- Finally, I think it’s important to have fun in a startup. This can mean different things to different people, but the point is that, fundamentally, working on an exciting venture should be a joy. I try to bring my own fun to the office (high tea in the afternoons if I’m dragging, Formal Friday so our normally casual interns get to dress up occasionally, ad hoc games of Calvinball throughout the office space) but, moreover, I encourage others to bring their own fun, which is often contagious.