Office Culture, Vision, and Leadership: How to maintain a culture that encourages innovation

Office culture means a lot to me. It’s an element of a business that is often taken for granted, or left to manifest organically, but over the years I’ve learned the importance and effectiveness of always keeping its development a top priority.

People nowadays put considerable weight on a company’s values, community, and culture while deciding whether to join or work with it. For this reason and many others, culture plays a significant role in your organization’s success, and greatly affects its trajectory for the future.

There are three general areas of office culture which are most important to me: vision & leadership, hierarchy, and the physical office space. The following are my thoughts and takeaways on how leaders can maintain a culture that encourages innovation, and success.

Vision & leadership are an important element of office culture

Provide objectives, but don’t dictate the means of getting there

I believe one of the best examples of management structure comes from the Prussian army after the Napoleonic wars. The Prussians developed a system for granting a huge amount of latitude to people on the ground. Generals would say “your objective is to take that hill” or “interrupt that supply line”, but then let the officers who were actually in the area determine the specific strategy for achieving that objective. They called it Auftragstaktik. Prussia went from terrible losses in the Napoleonic Wars to building Europe’s most powerful empire through three decisive victories against Denmark, the Habsburg monarchy and France.

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke created the military structure of distributed decision making

This makes a ton of sense, because the people who are directly exposed to the problem at hand are the ones that have the best understanding of how to deal with it. As a manager it’s important to recognize that about your team, and let them meet their objectives in the manner they deem most efficient.

Startups have the added advantage of being small enough to incorporate this type of management from the beginning. Innovation in bigger companies is stifled by budget plans, project management meetings, and sifting through different levels of communication. Making a decision around a product can take 6 months, and acting on that decision can take 3 to 4 years. Small companies, on the other hand, can move a lot faster because the team can sit around a table, decide on a design or product change in a number of minutes, and execute it within a few months.

Even though Wesley Clover and Alacrity are larger organizations, especially if you incorporate all of the portfolio companies, we operate in the style of the Prussian army. As investors who are directly involved in management, we set key objectives, but the portfolio companies and individual managers are empowered to make their own decisions around those objectives. Using this type of management culture drives innovation and empowers people to react quickly to changing circumstances. The worst thing your team can do in a rapidly changing environment, is waste time waiting for instructions. As your team grows, the leader’s ability to provide those instructions gets further and further diminished. It doesn’t scale.

This approach also drives commitment from the team. Instead of creating conflict through arguing how something should be done, teams are empowered to decide that for themselves. It also focuses the leadership on pursuing the main objectives, not arguing the details.

Don’t punish people for their mistakes

In emerging companies, there is no clear path. Mistakes happen. If your team aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t trying. As a manager, you’re far better off allowing people to keep making decisions so that they stay empowered. If you criticize employees for making decisions that didn’t work out, they will be paralyzed when they should making the crucial decisions you need them to. You hired the best team you could, so trust that they can make the right decisions and keep your company moving despite the hiccups.

If someone made a mistake that shows they’re against your overall mission, then address that. But if they failed at something that is still in support of the mission, don’t punish them for it. We learn and tend to do better when we aren’t chastised for our mistakes. In general, the more you dictate top-down, the more you will paralyze your organization. The only things you should dictate are the methodologies and values that support your mission.

Keep hierarchy flat, but not flat

From the perspective of who’s valued, and who’s most critical to the organization, things should really be flat. There is no one individual that is more important to the organization. Each member of the team should have a voice, and an opportunity to weigh in on every aspect of the company. Everyone is of equal importance and acting otherwise will only succeed in damaging your culture.

Flat… but not

So effectively the hierarchy should be flat… but not. The “but not”, is that you need some order to prevent chaos. Leadership needs to provide vision and direction, and set precedent on the important things the organization is working on. As CEO, or as chairman of the board, I recognize that I should not be making all the decisions, but should be focused on the decisions that are inside my mandate. This does not make me more important than the engineer making the product, the salesperson selling it, or the office administrator. It just means that I’m responsible for certain decisions (typically around strategy, budget, and managing investors).

Everyone within the organization should have equal weight in their voice, but ultimately someone needs to be responsible for each decision. It would be wrong, nor in the CEO’s mandate, to make a decision around how a product should be built. “Flat, but not”, is effectively shorthand for respecting everyone that works with you, respecting their roles and the authority around their decision making, and providing a level of humility to those who are empowered to make other decisions. Sometimes as CEO, getting out of the way is doing your job.

Create a welcoming environment with open public space

When most people think about some of the larger tech organizations out there — Google, Facebook, Apple, etc — one of the first things they picture is the elaborate public spaces used to host both employees and visitors, along with their many cafes that serve food for no charge. They think “that’s awesome”, but they also probably think “but there’s no way a startup could do that”.

I disagree entirely. I’ve had startup companies operating in that type of environment for a long, long time, and I’ve learned that it’s not the free food that matters, but the public accessibility of the space. And it’s actually not that difficult to create that type of environment. It’s much more about openness, having a gathering place, and making people feel welcome into your community.

Having a public cafe in front of office space makes the building more welcoming and inviting for visitors

In a number of places where I’ve operated, many of which were converted warehouses or derelict office buildings, I’ve designed the space to have some kind of cafe business in the front to create this welcoming effect. Walking into an office, checking in, and waiting at the tiny reception area is uncomfortable for any visitor. When there’s a cafe and open space instead, it’s much more welcoming. My view has always been to try to remove that uncomfortable barrier — not just for guests, be them potential employees, customers, or investors — but also as the place for members of different internal departments to bump into each other and share ideas. Having even a very small cafe in the front of an office (typically a rent paying business) is very helpful, and becomes a place where people are comfortable, and that draws other like-minded individuals in too.

Drawing people in is important, because that’s how you create more opportunities for conversations with people from the surrounding tech community. People quickly learn that even though they may not have made an appointment, there’s a decent chance that they can snag a five minute conversation if they’re around this gathering place at the right time. It smooths the barriers to conversations, and the difficulty in our schedules.

At our building we have Dak. Even though it’s not very big, it has amazing food, with doors that open wide right onto the street, and it has resulted in myself and many others having countless excellent opportunistic conversations.

The early beginnings of Dak

Creativity saves money, and creates unique style

When it comes to the interior space of an office, my focus is on being creative in a way that saves money, while also lending a certain interesting design aspect to the space.

When we were first renovating our 1124 building (in Victoria, British Columbia) into office space, we were faced with the challenge of making sure the space had enough light. We put in skylights and turned the front facing wall into a glass garage door. This was relatively inexpensive, but then left us with the challenge of providing some sort of privacy for people to concentrate at their desks. Even in an open space office, you don’t want people to feel like they’re in a fishbowl with lots of pedestrians walking outside the windows. We took this opportunity to solve another issue: allowing for meeting rooms without all the difficult and expensive work of putting up walls and drywalling them.

Our answer to the problem was to use a portable conference room: a lightweight fiberglass 1970s trailer called a Boler. Then we thought “if we’re going to have a small camper, we may as well have a VW van pulling it” which made for our second interesting meeting room. The camper and van meeting rooms have good acoustics for meetings and calls and provide an interesting visual barrier from the public side. The people working in the open concept office on the other side get to enjoy some privacy, and it was much more cost effective than putting up new walls. It also inspired a whole other pile of design elements: picnic tables for the lunch room and kitchen, and grass to cover the ground.

“If we’re going to have a small camper van, we may as well have a VW van pulling it”

In this way we were able to save on renovation costs and lend an intriguing design aspect to the space. We’ve redesigned our other office spaces in town with the same philosophy.

I’ve always found great results as a leader from investing time and focus into fostering culture. There are big benefits to actively managing your culture, especially around vision & leadership, hierarchy, and the physical office space. It is a long term investment and more rewarding environment for your entire team.

If you enjoyed reading this article and are interested in learning how I faced the challenge of renovating and designing my other office spaces on a budget, let me know.



2 responses to ‘Office Culture, Vision, and Leadership: How to maintain a culture that encourages innovation

  1. Owen,

    Very fascinating article. I think the importance of company culture is going to continue rising as the decision making power is slowly being shifted to the candidate. As far as I am concerned, this is what makes up a majority of a first impression. The point is, you never know who is going to walk through that door, and when the right person does, a unique company culture will go a long way.


    • A good company culture always attracts the best candidates. Many great people will sacrifice extra pay over a better place to work. Maintaining the culture makes sound economic sense as well as bringing the best, most innovative and creative people into your organization that perpetuate that culture. Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your comment.

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