On What Your Culture Really Says

There’s an excellent rant on startup culture making the rounds called What Your Culture Really Says (archive link)by Shanley Kane. Here’s an excerpt:

Toxic lies about culture are afoot in Silicon Valley. They spread too fast as we take our bubble money and designer Powerpoints to drinkups, conferences and meetups all over the world, flying premium economy, ad nauseam. Well-intentioned darlings south of Market wax poetic on distributed teams, office perks, work/life balance, passion, “shipping”, “iteration,” “freedom”. A world of startup privilege hides blithely unexamined underneath an insipid, self-reinforcing banner of meritocracy and funding.

It’s not a balanced article, but it is an exceptional one. It’s a sharp, smart rant/critique of many trendy start-up practices, from remote work, to 20% time, to joyous resistance to meetings. It calls bullshit on the entire tide of practices that are popular enough now that the wider business world has taken notice.

My next book is about a company that has most of these practices and cultural values: WordPress.com. I read Shanley’s article three times.

Most trends in business history were largely followed by people who are drawn to shiny objects. They hear about some new fancy thing and they run to copy it for no other reason that it’s the new trendy thing. This generally fails, but there’s always another new trendy thing to follow. Shanley wrote:

Meetings are evil and we have them as little as possible. What your culture might actually be saying is… We have a collective post-traumatic stress reaction to previous workplaces that had hostile, unnecessary, unproductive and authoritarian meetings. We tend to avoid projects and initiatives that require strict coordination across the company…We are heavily invested in being rebels against traditional corporate culture.

She’s on the money about the rampant anti-corporate thematics in many companies. Being anti-something doesn’t create a healthy culture all on its own. If the primary cultural value is simply not being something else, it’s unlikely to last long. The reason many cultures end up in this place, as she points out, is they’ve had bad experiences. And rather than do the emotionally harder work of sorting out which elements of meetings, or hierarchy, or a dozen other conventional trappings of companies they worked at previously, were good or bad, the entire concepts are thrown out in their entirety. And just as blindly, new, hip, trendy concepts, are accepted in their entirety with a similar lack of scrutiny.

As critical as it is, I read her piece as a call for critical thinking about the relationship of practices to cultures. Healthy culture is harder to obtain than a checklist of trends.

Her article is largely a list of questions anyone considering these practices should ask, and I recommend giving it a full read.

4 Responses to “On What Your Culture Really Says”

  1. Christian Ward

    You have become one of my favorite writers, both in your books and on your blog. It kills me to point out the mistake in your grammar in the above essay. Second to the last paragraph: you used “peace” instead of “piece.” Honest mistake, probably a spell check that changed your word. Just thought you should know. Thank you for your insights.

    1. Scott

      Christian: Thanks for reporting it – Fixed!

  2. Michelle Bennett

    I cannot find this article and have been looking all over the interwebs, including her website. I am dying to read the complete article. Do you have a copy of it? Know where she’s moved it? Any help would be fantastic!


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