The Ultimate Guide to Company Culture Part Two: Out With the Old, In With the Way Better

Out With the Old, In With the Way Better

In the first installment of our four-part series on building an excellent company culture, we examined what it means to approach culture building as an art form. Check out that post if you want to learn more about that concept — it’s not required reading before proceeding with this post, but it will provide some additional context for the topic we’re looking at today.

It’s cliché to say life is complicated, but it’s an important fact framing our discussion on modernizing company culture. Because decisions around company culture are frequently fraught, opaque, and/or confusing, it’s very easy for leaders to instinctually focus on minimizing mistakes and taking the safe route. However, opting for safety seldom aligns with the heights ambitious businesses aspire to reach, squandering their potential.

The safe route, in many cases, is simply to do what has worked for others. There’s a reason 'rules of thumb' dominate and why vanilla ice cream is the most popular flavor on the planet. But at Kicksaw, we believe that if you’re trying to do something powerful that truly makes a difference, you have to eschew the common way of thinking and challenge the status quo. Out with the old, in with the way better, we say. 

Take a Lesson From the Stagnant Giants

Just a few decades ago, companies such as Sears, Xerox, and Kodak dominated. Their power in the market seemed totally unstoppable. Fast forward twenty years though, and their momentum was gone. Innovation was nowhere to be found. The giants that seemed too big to fail had gone the way of the dodo. Why?

Nothing kills an innovative culture like bloat. When corporations become massive bureaucracies, there’s no room for agility. Major brands are inevitably run by professional managers, not innovators or disruptors, and it shows. As David Packard, of Hewlett Packard fame, puts it, “More businesses die of indigestion than starvation.” 

While these businesses almost always start out fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit, they can’t keep that momentum going once they reach critical mass. With monopolies established and regulatory agencies captured, there’s little incentive to innovate, but ironically, that scarcity mindset eventually turns on the business itself. 

Folks who succeed at large companies tend to be…well, the type of folks who succeed at large companies. But their interests align primarily in protecting their fiefdom rather than taking risks and truly innovating, and it doesn’t take long for this attitude to backfire on not only them, but their company as well.

Of course all businesses have their struggles, but how does this play into company culture? Stagnation at any level is like a poison — it spreads. If your business model is sluggish or inert, that will affect your culture, and vice versa. Businesses who are innovative create company cultures that are vibrant and adaptable. And those cultures, in turn, protect the businesses.

So should success be sacrificed for culture’s sake? Certainly not — there’s a balance that can and should be struck. Success doesn’t have to equal stagnation.

Take Apple, for example. They’re a company known for retaining that initial innovation mindset. And even though they are a staggeringly large company with a lot to lose, they aren’t afraid to keep pushing the envelope or trying new things. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off. As one recent example, their self-driving car project took three years and over $10 billion but was ultimately scrapped. That willingness to take risks, and to take those tough decisive steps when those risks are not paying off, is the only way to avoid stagnation. 

Apple’s company culture is at the core of this retained innovation after so many years as a domineering giant. It’s what allows them to continue making big bets, knowing some will flop while others will change the industry. Their culture is not the same as Kicksaw’s, or even very similar, to be honest — but both of our cultures have one extremely important thing in common: they protect innovation. 

Ditch the MBA Mindset

As alluded to in the previous section, the professional management culture is one we believe limits dynamism in business. One of the hallmarks of a company that has lost its way is “credentialism,” which is the idea that credentials make you qualified and that a lack of credentials is the same as limits on a person’s abilities. This is bullshit (pardon our French). 

Unfortunately, credentialism pervades much of corporate culture. However, we know from both experience and careful observation that companies that reject the credentialism mindset have the ability to outperform those that embrace it.

Kicksaw employees come from all walks of life: veterans, stay-at-home moms, people looking for a career change, etc. And yet, we’ve found that all those differences make us stronger as a company, because they give us unique perspectives on the challenges that our customers face. 

In Kicksaw’s early days, co-founders Kenny Goldman and Kyle Morris were our only consultants, and they didn’t have a single Salesforce certification between the two of them. They let the results of their work speak for itself, and their customers never knew the difference. More often than not, customers were surprised to learn that neither Kenny nor Kyle had ever been “formally” trained. 

Today, Kicksaw receives dozens, if not hundreds, of applications for every position we post on our website. The candidates who stick out to us are not the ones with lots of certifications — the ones we notice are those who have done practical work. 

“Our best employees are often the ones who are self-taught, or who had to figure things out when there was no blueprint,” Kyle says. “One recent hire was a former teacher who took over setting up the Salesforce CRM for the high school where he taught because no one else was willing to step up. That practical experience of working with decision makers, understanding the needs of end users, and iterating helped him stand out as an applicant compared to candidates we’ve seen who simply earned some certifications.”

Along these same lines, Kyle has an anecdote he likes to share that neatly encapsulates the idea that credentialism does more harm than good (if you talk to Kyle for any length of time…you’ll discover he’s chock-full of anecdotes and stories). 

“When I meet other entrepreneurs, I’m always excited to hear how their business came to be,” he says, “and I once met two founders who explained their origin story to me this way: They sat in a room with a whiteboard for two months mapping out every business they could conceive of. Which ones had the largest market, the best profit margins, etc. It felt so manufactured. It felt gross. It felt exactly like the thing a person relying too much on their MBA would do.

“Companies succeed because of the things that can’t be measured. Leaders need to have an instinct for the right path to follow, rather than a roadmap that tells you which step to take next. Measuring and optimizing is important, but it isn’t going to buy you success. You can optimize everything and still fail.”

At best, the ‘measure and optimize’ mentality won’t guarantee success. At worst, it’s an outright recipe for disaster for your company culture. Remember, companies are made up of human beings, and human beings are complicated. Echoing the points we hit on in our previous blog post, decision makers at your company need to have a feel for what works for their team. Culture is an art, not a science, and art requires a softer touch than a tidy set of checkboxes or relying only on what the data is telling you.  

Have a Bias for Action

One of General Patton’s most famous quotes is, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.” 

We agree. Analysis paralysis is the death spiral of a business. But in order to start executing today, you have to get comfortable with making imperfect decisions. Swap that mindset for a bias for action. Take risks! Dashboards and Gantt charts are great, but when relied on too heavily or for the wrong reasons, they’re a lot like advice that you only ask for when you already know the answer, but wish that you didn’t. Reports should be a data point, not a crutch.

Your bias for action also needs to include a bias toward pushing decisions down. It’s easy as a leader to fall into the trap of assuming that you have to solve every problem. You don’t. Where possible, hand the decision down to someone lower in the proverbial trenches, because more often than not, the people who experience the pain are better positioned to solve it, particularly when compared to a busy executive.

Is something not working for your business? Name the friction point (or find the person at your company who can name it), then fix it, and don’t spend a month considering which fix is the best fix. Try one, and if that doesn’t work, try another one — the important thing is to keep moving. This is where the stagnation comes back into play. Your business can’t be stagnant. If it does, it will die. 

Your culture can’t be stagnant either. Keep adding new things, keep dreaming up ways to improve on what’s there, or you risk withering on the vine.

On par with that Patton quote, one of Kyle Morris’s other favorites is the timeless advice to do half as many things twice as well. Keep it simple. Narrow your focus to what is important to you and really, really focus on perfecting whatever that important thing is. 

At Kicksaw, one of the things we’ve decided to devote our focus to is our culture. We think it’s extremely important, and we think we’re pretty good at it too. So we double down — we’re always looking for ways to improve what we’ve already built. 

A healthy work-life balance is an integral part of our culture, which means we give  unlimited PTO, lots of four-day weekends, plenty of holidays, etc. But recently, we noticed there wasn’t a scheduled holiday for the month of April. So we made one. We designated the last Friday in April as the official ‘Kicksaw Appreciates You!’ day and gave folks the day off. And before moving forward with this idea, we didn’t sit down and calculate the revenue lost, meetings that would have to shift, or anything else. We just did it. That’s our style, and we think it’s the way to go — our bias for action, which comes directly from our founders Kenny and Kyle, has brought us a truly incredible amount of success in the six short years we’ve existed. 

Follow your instincts for what you know is right for your company and your culture, trust your gut, and have a bias for action. You’ll probably make a couple of wrong turns along the way, but as long as you are prioritizing progress over recklessness, the momentum you’ve generated will propel you back to where you need to be. 

Next up in our four-part ultimate guide to company culture is a discussion on people vs. profits. Spoiler alert: one is a way, way, way more important factor in your success as a business/culture, and it isn’t profits. Follow us on LinkedIn to be notified when that one is published. And as always, feel free to reach out to Kyle Morris if you want to start a discussion on culture building or learn more about how a bias for action has informed Kicksaw’s evolution as a business.

Did you miss the first installment in our series on company culture? Catch up using the link to that below, then keep going with parts three and four:

No items found.
No items found.