The default state is meh
1 min read

The default state is meh

Many organizations start out with a strong culture. Everyone at the company has a shared (even if implicit) understanding of what it means to be an exceptional citizen of their organization and obsessively upholds it. But without clear mechanisms for upholding and evolving the culture, it eventually slips away into some milquetoast version of itself and everything the company does begins to skew towards the mostly-inoffensive mean. We all know the tropes.

The work output is good enough to get the job done but it's nothing you want to hang on the proverbial fridge. The company gets hierarchical and teams turn into territories. Success is measured in team size, not impact. The goals of the company are supplanted by the aspirations of the individual. People stop caring about what’s happening outside their personal inbox. The company becomes a better fit for process upholders and box-checkers than great thinkers and builders. Only “sure, lgtm” people thrive and“hmm, what about” people get wrist slaps and annoy their colleagues.

Worst of all, these operating modes are contagious, so once it starts it's really hard to stop. The best talent steers clear and/or departs at the first whiff of this stuff. And, if the company is lucky enough to scale, and especially to scale quickly, the train only speeds faster towards this state. ICK!

In summary, the organizational politics beat out the contents of an idea. And what's scary is that this is the default state, even when there's no malicious intent. (See Alex Komoroske's talk on how organizations are like slime molds for more on why that is). Without a relentless focus on culture, organizations slip into the default state; mostly tolerable to most people.

Your only hope of steering away from this is to build a strong culture of intellectual honesty that everyone upholds. To be specific, you have to establish (and evolve!) the processes and norms that get and keep everyone comfortable with:

  • Open discourse
  • Embracing nuance
  • Egoless debates
  • Regular feedback
  • Principled decision-making
  • Asking “why”
  • Explaining “why”
  • Unbiased evaluation of successes and failures

Françoise Brougher(Google, Pinterest) calls it,“care with candor.” Jeff Lawson(Twilio) calls it“no shenanigans.” Patty McCord(Netflix) calls it“honesty”. Boz(Facebook) calls it“antifragile.” Ravi calls it "demanding and supportive."

No matter what you call it, it’s the only way to do it.