Building Culture: Naming, Symbols, Rituals, Stories
Updated: Jul 16, 2019
Your team will Build a Tribal Identify Anyway. Better to Build it Consciously
You’re Going To Get A Tribal Identity: Pay Attention
If you put a group of people together for any length of time, even a few minutes, they will start to form what we might call a tribal identity. They will start to agree amongst themselves, quite unconsciously “this is who we are”.
Think of a group of strangers stranded at an airport gate. Very quickly the group will decide: “we are lost” or “we are helpless” or “we are heroes and we’re not going to take this any more”. These “decisions” won’t be made explicitly or with much discussion — they will happen as the people in the group pick up on the moods and intentions and characters of the people around them.
In a previous post, I stated that Culture is You. That is: the culture of your organization is largely defined by what you believe and value, and how that is transmitted through your actions.
The “tribal identity” of your organization is the “who we are” representation of that culture. It will begin to form around the values that you hold and are transmitting. This process starts as soon as you begin to put your organization together, whether you want it to or not, and whether you are paying attention or not.
Tribal identity is incredibly strong: a company I had a hand in starting twenty years ago still feels the same when I walk in — the “energy” is the same, the lobby has the same creative vibe, but neither I, nor my generation of the exec team have worked with for years. Google people are still Google people; Apple people Apple people.
The very strength of tribal identity provides a framework for establishing a culture that can withstand change, growth and the inevitable turnover of key players
Here are a few mechanisms that strengthen and build the tribal identity of an organization. Bear in mind that these mechanisms will happen anyway, so the more you are aware of them, the more you can consciously build an identity you want and are proud of.
“We are…”. The most powerful tool of all (Biblical, in fact). Product names, team names, code names, conference room names, titles — these are identities. People take on the tones of the names that the organization uses.
Google’s very name is a technical in-joke (the name was a misspelling which turned out to be available as a domain). Witty, clever, technical, eccentric — it’s baked into the name.
“We are…” what? Warriors? Poets? Artists? Craftspeople? You get to choose who you are.
What actions and moods do the names of your teams suggest? When you want a team to move fast, what do you call it?
Notice how your team describes themselves now. Is that what you want?
What symbols do you use? What’s on your walls? What’s the first thing visitors see when they come to meet with you?
Do you have a screenshot up of the first thing you shipped? A picture of the first customer who sent you a thank-you note?
AirBnB famously has a replica of the apartment that the company started in constructed inside their office in San Francisco. LinkedIn has a giant screen in their main lobby showing the size of their network and videos of people who’s lives have been changed by their membership. One project I managed conspicuously displayed an inflatable dummy of The Scream — an effective and elegant communication of cultural distress (yes, it shipped. No, it wasn’t a great success).
Symbols are reminders of Who We Are. You can choose them, or they will just start to show up. If you haven’t consciously been choosing them, look around the office — they are there, you just haven’t noticed them yet.
Rituals emphasize what’s important. At one point in an early startup I had a regular meeting where I gave out prizes. Everybody knew the company was existing on a bridge loan at the time, so the prizes were from Mission Thrift— you could get a huge bowling trophy for $2 at that time (#SF2019 moment — Mission Thrift is finally closing. Ah, man. Things change).
The ritual celebrated the team every week. It cost next to nothing and established, every week, a tribal identity of success, creativity and progress in the face of a pretty tricky financial situation.
Again, your team will already have rituals, even if you haven’t put them in place — maybe they go to lunch at the same place every day, maybe everybody fixes bugs on a Thursday.
Put the rituals in place that serve you, and what you want your organization to be.
“drf staying up all night to fix a memory leak before our first massive customre demo”, “Charles wrote the first version of the product in two weeks”. The first real Silicon Valley startup I joined had great stories — I was employee 41 (or thereabouts) so the company hadn’t been around for that long. Within a day of being there, I’d heard the stories and got the vibe: I was in for very hard work, gritty determination and a reverence for technical brilliance.
As we grew Macromedia, I repeated the stories of finding the first few great hires (“David came in wearing a suit!”, “the moment Greg walked in, it was a hire”: we valued oddball, creative and super-flexible engineers and it was a delight to find each one. The stories of recognizing the talent, personality and fit of the people who began the startup molded how we found the hundreds of people that grew into a public company a few years later.
Stories communicate what we value, what we prize. Find the stories that are happening now. Remember them. Repeat them. Weave them into your culture.
Can I Use These Tools to Change the Culture?
Yes and no.
Changing the culture starts with you — what you value and the actions and decisions you take. Once you have started to change those, the techniques above will serve to re-iterate and amplify the tribal identity that supports the new culture.
If you want a culture of speed, but all means have a set of speedy symbols on the walls, call the conference rooms after race cars and rockets and celebrate the “fastest teams weekly”. But start by changing your own approach to decision and actions — if you start to act fast, so will your team.
Consciously building a culture is the most powerful way of building an organization that will endure and thrive.
The tribal identity of the organization how the organization expresses and maintains that culture. Use it well.