The Most Overlooked Growth Hack: Culture Design
Company culture is the secret sauce of many successful companies from startup to scaleup and beyond. “Culture hacking” is a rigorous way to transform your culture to get the best out of your people, fast.
Before growth comes culture
“Growth hacking” is without doubt one of the great business methodologies of our time. It has become so much more than just a buzzword. Sean Ellis coined the term and wrote the book explaining the approach after igniting growth for the likes of Dropbox, Eventbrite, LogMeIn and more.
The main idea behind it is that today’s business powerhouses didn’t get to where they are now by merely building a great product and then crossing their fingers and hoping they would catch on. Instead, they used growth hacking strategies and tactics.
The essence of growth hacking is you carry out rapid fire experimentation across multiple marketing channels and in different product development directions to identify the most cost effective ways to grow your business. Growth hacking uses iteration and rapid tempo testing to focus closely on what customers want.
It’s a phenomenal approach which is known and used by practically anyone who’s anyone in startups these days, and increasingly in larger corporations too.
It is not, however, without its critics. Some say that isolated tactics of the kind generated by basic growth hacks will always be isolated tactics, so long as they’re not part of a wider, systematic, customer-driven marketing and product strategy.
I would argue that there’s an even more fundamental consideration than that. For growth hacking to work, not only do you need to have achieved product/market fit, you need the right company culture in place first. The right leadership styles, the right people, small autonomous teams, strong beliefs, values, attitudes and so on. I’m a big believer that the culture of any organisation can be designed, that it can be intentional, and that without a healthy, positive, empowering culture no company will be the best it can be.
The problem is that many founders, leaders and CEOs struggle with culture as a concept, so it just evolves and changes of its own accord as the team grows.
Your culture is your core product and your most powerful brand identity
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your culture is this ephemeral, intangible, uncontrollable thing. That’s the easy way to just pass it off to HR and condemn it to the occasional employee survey and hope that free coffee and table football will keep everything on track.
Think of your culture both as your product and as a brand. You can design, implement, measure and improve your culture in the same way you do with a product. And your culture can shape the most amazing employee brand which will attract and retain the right talent. Done well it’s without doubt a competitive advantage. So why wouldn’t you treat it with the attention it deserves.
If you’re a startup, lay the foundations for your culture before you focus on growth. If you’re a scaleup, you can continuously measure, test and iterate cultural initiatives to ensure culture doesn’t create bottlenecks and to adapt to a changing environment. If you’re a large corporate, your culture is well and truly embedded, but not necessarily beyond being fixed.
Your employees are your most important customers
If we start thinking of our culture as a product, then it’s not a huge leap to take the convenience and underlying approach of growth hacking and apply it to cultural change.
So where do we start? With a product or even an idea for a product, you start with your customers. With culture it’s really no different: the employees are the internal customers.
So start with your “best” customers, those people on the team who most embody the desired spirit and values of the company, and listen to them. Get the leaders of the company involved too and just start talking. Try to understand what progress they are trying to make and what holds them back.
The culture canvas is your starting point for change
A useful tool for guiding conversations and experiments around culture is the Culture Canvas:
The Culture Canvas is structured to cover all the components which come together to form a company’s culture. It’s meant to act as a springboard for ideas, whilst keeping people focused on what genuinely will shape and impact the culture. Sometimes you’ll know pretty quickly where you need to focus, other times you’ll need to hold a workshop going through each cultural domain.
Once you’ve identified which areas of your culture need the most attention, you need to identify some metrics to track how well your experiments will work. Again we can look at a design-based framework, Google’s HEART metrics, to use as a base which we can mould to establish metrics for cultural change:
- Happiness: measures of employee attitudes, often collected via survey. For example: satisfaction, perceived ability to progress as an individual, and employer net-promoter score.
- Engagement: level of employee involvement, typically measured via behavioural proxies such as frequency of contribution or depth of interaction with company activities over some time period.
- Adoption: new “users” of a cultural initiative.
- Retention: the rate or period for which existing employees are staying with the company.
- Task success: this includes traditional behavioural metrics such as efficiency (e.g. time to complete a task at work), effectiveness (e.g. percent of tasks completed), and error rate. This category is most applicable to areas of your workflow that are very task-focused.
You should then move on to identify hypotheses about your employees, which you will then prove or disprove. The process can be described as a loop of Analyse — Ideate — Prioritise — Test.
Employee surveys, Net Promoter Scores, retention rates — whatever you have. If you don’t have much (or any!) employee feedback data, either quantitative or qualitative, I’d recommend getting started using a simple anonymous survey (Google Forms or Typeform are great for this) that asks everyone in the company “Would you recommend working here to a friend?”.
Rather than a standard 0–10 point scale used with a standard Net Promoter Score, just give three options of “Not really”, “Maybe” and “Yes”, with corresponding scores used of -1, 0 and +1. And have a follow-up question, “What could we do better?”
Use a workshop session with the Culture Canvas format as your guide. The facilitator should write up a simple canvas on the surface you’re using. Just the domain headings are fine, but each one will need to be explained. Team members individually spend 3 minutes writing post-its for each category in turn, describing activities they want to STOP doing. The journey map painpoints should be visible as they’ll remind people where the main problems are.
Then spend another 3 minutes on each category (using a different colour post-it), this time noting activities you want to START doing. These shouldn’t be detailed solutions; we’re looking for ideas like “embrace remote working”; “create an employee handbook”, “give teams more autonomy” and so on.
All the post-it notes should be put on the board in the relevant sections, and the moderator reads them all out, bundling any which are similar.
Follow the ideation with a voting round with 4 dots each, 2 for the STOP notes and 2 for the START votes. Then it’s time to look at all the notes with a vote and to identify simple experiments to test each one, including a KPI and the segments of your workforce to be tested.
Then, for prioritisation of all these experiments, a decent approach is to use the ICE framework — you consider the Impact, Confidence and Ease, giving a score of 1, 2 or 3 for each experiment.
Testing cultural initiatives is generally not as straightforward as the kind of product tests you might run with a website. Whereas with a product you can think about running a simple A/B test for say 2 weeks, with culture hacks it’s more like a month. Choose a small team to start with, a team who will genuinely benefit if the KPIs are met.
Successful culture change is like starting a movement
If a culture hack experiment proves successful, it’s time to roll out the new initiative. This takes undivided commitment from leadership to live and breathe the new approach, and careful focus on the narrative to use to “sell” the idea.
Use the initial team as champions of the new approach and continue to measure your metrics, but do NOT underestimate the effort involved by leadership to encourage the new behaviour. It helps if you view trying to effect cultural change as starting a movement. That’s how thorough you have to be!
Tip: Spotlight the wins. Where success comes from the teams adopting the new approach, make sure it’s shared and recognised through the organisation.
Once you have new initiatives running and metrics coming in, you need to stay organised. Identify your top culture bugs, then triage, prioritise, and assign owners to each one.
Above all, successful culture change needs transparency
Just about the worst thing you could do when starting a culture hacking programme is to keep it quiet. From the outset you need to be involving as many people as possible, constantly seeking feedback, and especially sharing the results. This is not a time for closed door C-suite meetings or whispered rumours about who’s working on what.
So if it isn’t already one of your company values, what better place to start than with a test to improve internal transparency?
It’s never too late to get your culture on track. So go get culture hacking!
About the author: Martin Slaney
Martin has co-founded several FinTech startups as well as leading product and innovation teams in global organisations. He now works as a consultant in digital product innovation, helps startups get their culture, teams and processes in shape for scaling up, and loves being more pirate 🏴☠️