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Building a culture deck: Tips from Buffer, Hootsuite and Patreon

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Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp

@didierelzinga

A culture deck is a way of encapsulating what a company is about, its values and how it should operate. It’s something that many companies consider doing when they get serious about culture and want to create artifacts to help their people understand it. The most talked about culture deck of recent years was created by Netflix because it did such a good job of explaining how the company was going to run and how they wanted their people to approach their work.

As we've been working on our own cultural artifacts at Culture Amp, I’ve been talking to other organizations about how they developed and use their culture deck. This has uncovered some interesting issues and ideas that are worth keeping in mind when developing your own culture deck.

Culture decks must be relevant to be valuable

Much of the feedback I’ve heard was that the culture deck was incredibly valuable when it was created but it loses relevance quickly - particularly when the company is growing very rapidly.

If you don't keep your culture deck updated it very quickly becomes something that’s not actually useful - it has to live and breathe. But it takes an incredible amount of work to keep a culture deck current and relevant. As Hayley Griffis from Buffer advised, “We used to be more consistent about making small tweaks and iterations to our values more regularly but as we’ve grown it hasn’t been something we’ve kept up with as much as we would have liked.”

This was a struggle for many companies and resulted in some moving away from their culture deck. I was surprised to find out that some of the best culture decks are no longer used for this reason. For example, Hootsuite has moved away from its culture deck in recent years.  According to Heidi Rolston: “I don't think there was a hard-stop on using it but in the last year and a half, we realized that the cultural manifesto was not inclusive for our rapidly growing and changing employee population.”

While it may be a struggle to keep it relevant, I believe culture decks can still add substantial value. As your company grows you don’t get the opportunity to sit down with individuals one on one and explain what you’re trying to achieve, but a culture deck can help to do this. The best culture decks pull together corporate stories and present them to every person in the company consistently. They also provide a clear reference point for people thinking about joining the organization.

The culture of your organization will change as the company grows and the culture deck needs to be updated to reflect this. To do this you have to commit to your culture deck on an ongoing basis. You can’t just outsource to create a culture deck and think it’s done. It needs to be resourced and updated at least quarterly. This gives you an opportunity to include things you’ve learned, adjust the message and keep it fresh.

“Unless you invest in revising, updating, and reshaping your culture deck, it’s going to become useless. We update our deck on a monthly basis to keep it relevant as we grow,” said Tyler Palmer at Patreon.

If your culture deck isn’t something that is lived and breathed then, at best, it’s an object of ridicule. That’s why it needs to be a core part of your onboarding and something that your organization uses every day. This can be quite hard, but it's actually in this process that you will get the most value from the document.

Culture decks must be inclusive

One of the other common things I heard from many organizations was that they struggled to make their culture deck inclusive. Too often the culture deck represented the organisation they were today, rather than the organisation they wanted to be.

As a company grows rapidly, the new people coming in may look very different to the people that were there at the beginning. The culture deck needs to be able to adapt and be inclusive of everyone, particularly as the people within the organization change. Quoting Tyler From Patreon: “Your cultural documentation should be accurate and reflect who you really are. Your culture should change and evolve, and your new teammates should play a part in helping you shape the future of the culture and the deck.”

Inclusiveness may not always be easy to identify either. For example, I heard feedback that our own culture deck was too masculine and didn’t resonate with some people. When I looked more closely at how I’d been presenting it, I realized that some of the stories I used were more masculine. I had to step back and take out some sporting and military analogies and incorporate others that had more universal appeal, like music analogies. This process of inclusion can be difficult but it’s important to make sure the culture deck is relevant to everyone.

Another issue that can occur is when the culture deck is used as a weapon. For example, at Culture Amp we have a value to learn faster through feedback. But we learned over time that people weren’t using that value in the way it was intended. Rather than helping people learn, some were just telling people what they do wrong and making them feel terrible. The feedback doesn’t live up to the value if it isn’t used to help people learn faster. That’s why it’s important for a culture deck to also address the misuse of values and culture.

I believe culture decks are incredibly useful but they need to keep pace with the organization to remain valuable. To achieve this it’s important to resource them so they can live and breathe. It’s also necessary to be aware of what needs to change to ensure the document remains inclusive and continues to represent how you want your organization to operate.

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