The critical cultural trait you need to continue to grow

by Bee Heller
October 26, 2016

You’ve grown quickly because your nimble and energetic culture has allowed you to respond quickly to new market opportunities and customer demands. Now you’re competing with more established players and there’s a huge opportunity to really shake up your industry. But to do this you need to master delivering operational efficiency at your newly acquired scale, without losing the entrepreneurial culture and excitement that’s made you successful to date.

It’s a situation many growing organisations face. Matt has previously written about why cultural challenges start to arise when companies reach about 150 people. This is when ’start-up’ behaviours start to get in the way of further progress. 150 is Dunbar’s Number and it’s the group size at which human beings can no longer keep track of all the relationships and social dynamics within the group. Above this group size we need formal rules to help us navigate relationships and behave appropriately.

Many organisations turn to their larger rivals for answers on how to overcome these growing pains. In our view, this is the fastest way to erode your entrepreneurial advantage.

Instead, we think the most important trait growing companies need is a culture of learning.

In order to continue to be successful we think growing companies should identify areas for experimenting with new ways of working. As you grow, what do you want to change and what do you want to retain? Are there some things that need to get done that would lend themselves to having more formal processes and procedures? Can you separate these from work that requires more creativity and collaboration?

Agreeing some formalised processes will help with the social challenge of being a bigger company. Once determined, formally writing up these rules helps create an environment that’s easier for new starters to navigate, they know immediately and without doubt how to behave and get certain things done. And just because you’re formalising things, it doesn’t mean it has to be boring – you might take inspiration from the signs in Virgin Trains’ toilets.

There will be other aspects of work that will be best served by the entrepreneurial, collaborative, energetic culture that’s made your company successful to date. This is where having a culture of learning really comes into its own. Identify the ways of working you’d like to play with (be that recruitment, performance management, goal setting, recognition, feedback) and experiment with different approaches – what makes your people and customers happier and also helps your business perform? These are the practices to build on.

And why is learning so important? Because the very fact that you’re growing indicates that the environment is constantly changing. If you’re going to continue to grow, you need a culture that’s continually adapting and can flourish as the context changes. Just because one approach to performance management works for you when you’re 150 people, doesn’t mean it will still work for you when you’re 1,500 people.

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