Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

5 September, 2016

The importance of group culture

One of the most overlooked aspects of the company is it’s culture. It’s easy to ignore culture when a company is small, as people tend to be more like-minded. But as a company grows you bring on more people, and a company culture will form whether you intend it to or not.

Especially in creative areas, the culture can be vitally important for how well a company does. Let’s take a look at how culture of a workplace or a group can affect creative effort.

What is group culture?

“Culture” in this sense indicates the shared values and sense of purpose one has once you get past the foundation. Many people are probably familiar with “corporate culture”, which describes how a business conducts business. A company might be known for upholding certain values more than others, which affects how people perceive the company.

But, just about any group has a culture. Most creative people come together to “do creative stuff”, but what about once you get past that? Maybe the group values diversity, so they look for others from diverse backgrounds. Or maybe the group values cohesion, so it’s important for everyone to buy into the creative work.

Companies also have their own cultures that reflect what is important to the group. For example, a company might have a culture of working hard and putting in long hours. Another might have a culture of valuing work/life balance. If you need to fly home to take care of a sick parent, the second company is probably going to be more agreeable to you taking time off than the first company. On the other hand, the first company might offer better perks or compensation as a consequence of this culture of long hours and hard work.

Culture is influenced by the geographic culture, too. The European companies I’ve worked with tended to value personal time more than American companies do, for example, but there are exceptions. Culture can change over time, too. Most startups value people who can fill in multiple positions, but eventually it will transition into a larger culture where specialists are more valued.

Embryonic culture

When you have only a few people, it’s easy for the culture to be fluid. You don’t need to define what is important because you can talk it out. Even if the group doesn’t explicit define their culture, one person working directly with another can usually get what is important.

But, then the group grows. Not everyone is working directly with everyone else all the time. Elements of culture become implied and understood, even if not explicitly stated.

Assumed culture

If you don’t plan a culture, there will still be a culture. People react to stimulus, and lessons are shared between people. Humans are social animals, so we often pick up on subtle social cues from others.

For example, if people defer to a leader in a company, this will affect the culture. Others coming in to the group will learn to defer to the leader. People in the group who become leaders may expect deference as well, especially if appointed by the original leader. As the company grows, this element of the culture will probably stick around, creating a culture of deference to authority. This has both good and bad consequences, but I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what those are, precisely.

Or, maybe you have a leader who gets angry and blows up with little seeming provocation. This will result in a culture where people will avoid delivering bad news, perhaps even to the point of obscuring it. You will also probably have a culture of deferring blame. After all, nobody wants to be the target of of a public tirade from their leader. It’s possible you might also get a culture of people striving to improve themselves to avoid being singled out. But, you’ll still have that culture of avoiding bad news.

Establishing culture

Like most relationships, communication helps just about everything. If you want to establish a certain culture, you need to stat it as a priority. If you think you value diversity but you don’t actually do anything to attract diverse people, then you’re not really doing much to create a culture of diversity. By saying something, you’re establishing the first step in building such a culture.

The next important step is acting upon the culture you’ve stated you want to establish. For example, maybe you want to have an open and honest culture where bad news is brought to light as soon as possible. What you need to do is encourage people to do so. When someone does bring bad news, you need to thank and potentially reward that person publicly. If bad news goes unreported, you need to point it out and reinforce the lesson that it’s important to bring it as soon as possible. I’d be careful about applying too much negative consequence here, as it might make people a little too jumpy to report things that aren’t really bad news.

Keep in mind that other elements of culture will probably still establish themselves unless you’ve explicitly established alternatives. A company that values diversity and wants bad news to not be hidden might still have a culture where people defer to leaders because that is the lesson people learned.

Changing culture

It’s tough to change culture. Often assumed culture is developed because “it works”. People are often loathe to change what “works”, even if the alternative is better. This is one big reason why explicitly establishing culture is important.

If you’re going to change existing culture, you need to dedicate yourself to it. You need to make the new culture explicit and reward people who follow the new culture standard. You may also need to single out people who don’t adapt the new culture. Point out the problem, explain why the new system is better, and get people to understand the importance of the change. Letting transgressions slide creates confusion in the culture, and may undo the good you’re trying to establish.

Another way to change culture, intentionally or not, is to have a large influx of new people to the group. A new group will bring their own elements of culture to a group and can overwhelm an existing culture. So, it’s especially important to reinforce culture when you have a lot of people coming in, like when a company grows or when a group goes public and takes input from outside the group.

A culture of creativity

So, how can you build a culture that cherishes creativity? I think this is absolutely something you need to pay attention to, otherwise you might get a dysfunctional culture.

I think the most important thing is to get the group to agree to the culture. You need leaders who buy into the creative goals and want to support others. You need everyone to follow that lead, because one disruptive element can harm the whole creative process if left unchecked.

The other important thing is psychological security, where people feel confident in exposing their creative side to others without worry. Our creative side is often our vulnerable side, especially for people without much ego, so it’s important that people feel safe enough to be creative without reservation.

Finally, I think a good amount of leadership is important. Creativity can often flow without cease, making it hard to know when the creative process should stop and the actual work should begin. Usually you want someone to make the ultimate decisions and know when to stop a discussion that has stopped being productive. Again, trust is important here, so you want someone that everyone trusts making these decisions.

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list. There’s more to creativity than this, but it’s a good foundation to build off of.

Applying these rules to communities

The astute MMO players out there probably think this sounds a little familiar. Well, community has a culture, too. And, too often you see toxic fan cultures. I think you can use a lot of this same thinking about building group culture to establish a culture for a community.

The three important lessons are: culture will form even if you don’t shape it, it’s easier to establish it early than to change it later, and a large influx of people can significantly change the culture. Any community manager worth their salt needs to understand this. Ultimately, community management is about establishing the right community culture.

So, what do you think? Do you notice culture? Have you seen particularly good examples of culture? What steps did you notice that created that good culture?

1 Comment »

  1. Here’s a post summarizing a talk given by one of the top people at Supercell:

    Supercell is one of the darlings of mobile gaming at the moment with two top grossing games. Their team size is also very small, so they have an amazing amount of revenue per employee. I like the idea of celebrating failure (although that’s easier if you have a big hit to carry you), and of organizing like a sports team. I’ve worked at places where one person was seen as the “key” (and had the requisite ego to match), and it really just held others back in a way that didn’t get the best work from them.

    Anyway, read that for a glimpse at how one company’s efforts to define their culture has worked out very well for them.

    Comment by Psychochild — 6 September, 2016 @ 11:03 AM

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