The Challenge of Maintaining Company Culture During Growth
As successful startups enhance their capacities for growth and transition into the expansion stage, one of their primary concerns is sustaining something the founders and early employees worked tirelessly to build — a desirable and coherent company culture.
Of course, company culture is one thing to manage when you have a small group of employees operating out of a central office with a strong founder presence at the helm. But once that group begins to grow and transition, and once a company contemplates opening up satellite offices across the country or perhaps even around the world, the task becomes significantly more challenging.
It’s in these types of scenarios where founders begin to reflect on the range of policies, processes, and practices that are needed to foster and/or sustain uniformity in their company culture. Let’s explore how some companies are navigating the challenge and promoting a culture of collaboration and creativity in the workplace.
Fostering Cross-Functional Collaboration and Employee Engagement
It may not be breaking news, but cross-functional, team-based product/service design and development continues to be a key differentiator for some of the most successful companies. Almost every executive knows the value of this approach, though many struggle to facilitate exchanges or implement spaces that can organically encourage productive employee interaction. Startups often begin with a very collaborative culture when their employee base is small, but these practices quickly fade as the company grows and new structures are put in place.
In bigger organizations, it is difficult to have regular communication and interaction between employees from different departments, which hinders their ability to adapt quickly to changes in market forces. Companies such as GE and Apple are known to execute cross-functional employee collaboration effectively in their product design process. This involves an iterative design and testing process that incorporates feedback from a range of internal and external stakeholders affiliated with the company.
When it comes to engaging employees and facilitating a collaborative customer-centric sales and service model, Zappos continues to standout. The company focuses on “delivering happiness” to its customers and employees through the creation of a set of policies and practices to meet this objective. Two examples of these policies include a standard four-week training program that involves dealing with customers directly over the phone, and the promotion of an authentic company brand underpinned by a common work-life identity shared by all employees.
Encouraging Autonomous Creativity, Innovation, and Initiative
Research has illustrated the benefits of employee autonomy in the workplace, particularly in support of higher worker retention, satisfaction, and performance. As such, this practice has slowly shifted from being a feature within a few great companies to a growing practice amongst mainstream organizations — at least in terms of company messaging. The challenge has been to operationalize this endeavor into a practice that is both actionable as it relates to an employee’s core responsibilities, and measurable, generating figures that can be tied to the company’s bottom line.
Google was one of the first companies to put this idea into practice through its notable “20% time” program, which led to the creation of some of its innovative products including AdSense, Gmail, and Google News. The company modified this practice late last year and is perhaps exploring alternative and more efficient ways to facilitate individual creativity and innovation in the workplace.
LinkedIn, DreamWorks, and Facebook also employ an entrepreneurship model and foster intrapreneurship spirit by providing time, financial backing, and management support to transform creative ideas into potentially new products and services.
A groundbreaking initiative recently introduced by IBM expands upon this notion of fostering creativity and innovation within the workplace. The company has designed an internal crowdfunding platform, iFundIT, to facilitate the introduction and marketing of new ideas by its employees (similar to that of Kickstarter), exclusively for IBM staff. If successful, I am certain this idea will be replicated across the tech community, and perhaps even go mainstream, as it serves to enhance employee retention and efficiently promotes internal product and service innovation.
As disruptive innovation continues to transform traditional business models, and as the startup/crowdfunding space intensifies through increased competition, companies will have to continue to evolve their culture through relevant policies and practices. This will help ensure that their employees are committed to delivering the highest quality of service, are inspired and informed enough to design the most innovative products, and are happy to remain with the organization for above average durations.
What are some strategies your company has employed to foster a company culture of collaboration and creativity in the workplace?