Company Culture and the 90-minute 15-minute Meeting
Company culture is a funny thing. It’s as essential to the success of any company as anything else, and yet typically gets little serious attention. We may think about it now and again, but in most companies it happens when no one is looking; there are always seemingly more important things to worry about. The popular wisdom is that the company culture is a reflection of everyone in the company, but most of all of the CEO’s and others leaders’ strengths and weaknesses; for better or worse I believe that’s true (and any company leader should be humbled a bit by that, I think). Certainly culture is an emergent effect that’s difficult to control. And yet I believe strongly that it has an effect on the kinds of products we produce and how we feel about the experience afterward.
(Hmm, no pithy question or call-to-action here; I’m interested in what makes company culture work – read on, and please add your thoughts!)
I’ve worked in and with a lot of different companies over the years, from a small startup based in the basement of a hotel in Berkeley to GE Medical Systems in their large and generally soulless cubes and corridors. In the games industry I’ve been part of the quirky, friendly culture at places like Maxis, which remained largely a reflection of Will Wright even after the EA acquisition. Will wasn’t CEO, but he was the one to put a train set in the commons, who started the tradition of bringing modeling clay and toys to meetings, who regularly distributed small chotchkies to people and put the despair.com posters around the office before many people had heard of them (what were they going to do, fire him?). I’ve also been in overgrown frat house culture at places like Origin, and in other companies with cultures even more dysfunctional.
It’s easy to hear about companies with terrible culture in the games industry: ones that don’t value their employees’ time, that make making games a noxious process for all involved – places more concerned with ego, maybe, or other kinds of outward appearance, than about building something cool together. Or maybe just places where the pressures of working under tight deadline and budget have crushed the joy out of the process.
At the same time, I know there are at least a few companies in the games industry with great – and intentional – cultures that fit the people who work there. Two that stand out in my experience are Three Rings, headed by Daniel James, and Hidden Path Entertainment, headed by Jeff Pobst, Mark Terrano, and their partners. In both cases those who started the companies have gone to some lengths to build their culture – in Three Rings’ case this included extensively decorating the office like a steampunk Nautilus, right down to a huge couch in the shape of a squid tentacle, and keeping a certain zany, piratical culture that maintains a congenial urbanity at its core – much like the company’s CEO. For the folks at Hidden Path it means a lower key open environment (literally and figuratively) that fits its leaders, as well as things like Tuesday board night game nights that actually happen on most Tuesday evenings.
My own company has gone through several iterations in its life, and yet there is a thread of culture that persists – one that I’m sure I’m not equipped to see entirely accurately, encompassing as it does my own blindspots.
We’re currently in a situation that used to be unique, and isn’t so much anymore: we’re working hard on a (very cool) project, but are distributed around the US and overseas. This has caused me to emphasize communication across the team even more than I would normally. Since we’re not face-to-face each day, communication in all forms has an even larger effect than it would otherwise. This has resulted in a few little decisions on my part that seem to be having a large positive effect – for example, we keep our IM channels open whenever possible; these are the closest we have to “office doors.” We send a lot of email, and we talk on Skype a lot. These Skype calls are often accompanied by a text channel or an online whiteboard.
We also have what started as daily 15-minute “stand up” meetings, held via Skype. We still do the standard thing in these meetings of going around and having each person give their report – what did you do, what are you doing, what’s blocking you – but this is typically interspersed with a lot of color commentary and byplay. Sometimes it goes off into obscure movie quotes, game references, odd tangents, stories about our families, and the like. There’s a lot of laughing. And so far, while probably everyone’s been frustrated at some point (as much as anything else, probably in my direction), there’s been no rancor, no passive-aggressive behavior that so quickly corrodes a team and any real progress you’re making.
And this is at least partly intentional on my part. Partly it’s a reflection of my own conversational style (I’m often not the most linear person), but these meetings are how we keep the team knit together. We blow off steam via talking, stories, and humor. I don’t mean biting sarcasm or veiled aggression; I mean genuine shared good-feeling in the face of hard problems, to be more technical about it. I’ve worked with almost everyone on the team before, but our US team has only been in the same place all together one time, so I believe this breadth of communication is vital, even if it does sometimes make life more difficult for our long-suffering (but enthusiastic and participatory) producer.
We try not to drill too deeply into design or technical details in these meetings – it is important to be respectful of everyone’s time – and yet even when these meetings take an hour or 90 minutes, I rarely feel like it’s been wasted time. In fact I can’t recall the last time I left one of our meetings with that, “finally, I can get back to work” feeling that is so common in regular office meetings. We’ve joked about making podcasts of our daily meetings… there’s too much confidential info, of course, and none of us want to be “on stage,” but it’s a fun idea and to me is a good sign that everyone is enjoying themselves.
Now most company bosses are quick to point out that people aren’t employed to enjoy themselves. I’m not so sure that’s true, at least not at a high level. I want to work with people who do what they do because they enjoy it, and because they can bring that joy into their work even when (maybe especially when) things are difficult. We’re not stamping out widgets here; we’re doing a lot that has never been done before. If that becomes drudgery, how can we possibly hope to produce something worthwhile?
This joy isn’t something we can get from less frequent meetings – quarterly or annual meetings, much less a single holiday party each year. It’s something we have to bring to the company, like a dish we bring to a potluck, and something we have to build and reinforce together on a regular basis.
Every company is different, and so every company culture is different. Some are more aggressive and competitive, some more quirky, and others more openly caring. Each is a manifestation of the people involved, and in the values they agree to. I haven’t talked about values here; I’ll leave that for another post (but: integrity, flexibility, communication – that pretty much covers it). I’ll reference here too an excellent online presentation from Netflix about their company values; everyone who is interested in building a sound company should consider what’s in those slides carefully (really: read what TechCrunch had to say).
As the people at Netflix say, we evidence our values by what we do. And we build our culture by who we are and what we value. This is a process that’s never done as long as the company is around. In my experience, it can make the difference between success and failure, and between loving what you do and leading a simmering, angry, desperate career.
What do you think? What makes company culture work well or fail miserably? What can you do to improve what you do by improving the culture of where you work? What would you change if you could?