The Method Method Of Creating And Nurturing Amazing Corporate Culture

If a strong, inspiring corporate culture is greater than the sum of its parts, is it worthwhile--or even possible--to bother with the building blocks? In a Fast Company exclusive book excerpt, the founders of Method share how they kept their corporate culture vibrant as their business expanded exponentially.

Like the age-old riddle about silence--which expires the moment you say its name--culture defies cultivation. The latest HR theories can no more measure a company's culture than an MRI can isolate an individual's soul. No drab mission statement ever inspired anyone to put in extra hours on a side project, no weekend team-building exercise in the forest ever got executives and hourly workers to sit side by side at lunch on Monday, and the world has yet to see an employee handbook capable of boosting employee morale. The greater the effort to formalize it--to box it in with structure and guidelines--the faster culture slips away. Nevertheless, diligent HR pros devote dense manuals full of prescriptive theory to its creation, only to throw up their hands, exasperated, when it materializes spontaneously in the ranks of unassuming start-ups all around them. At Method, we understood that too much process would only be an impediment. The challenge was to institute process without suffocating culture--but how?

"Our challenge as a company was, how do you keep the magic alive?" says Rudy Becker, the resinator (aka engineering director). "It's one thing to succeed when you're small, but how do you keep all the good stuff while you grow? We knew what got us where we were and we didn't want to lose that. If we did lose it, it would almost not be worth it anymore."

In the midst of countless aimless discussions about how to fix Method's culture, our big spender (or CFO), Andrea Freedman, had an epiphany. What if we were to establish a pod to build and maintain our culture--a kind of ministry of culture?

Take a moment to identify the best aspects of your life at work and imagine how a group of devoted caretakers might help those aspects flourish. If you're still in the business-plan stage, make a list of all the qualities you envision in your ideal workplace and how you might encourage them on a day-to-day basis. Don't worry too much about what's practical at this stage--rather than an actionable plan, think of this as the ideal. The "Ministry of Culture" sounded great in theory, but we feared it would just be an HR department by another name. Meanwhile, if culture was by definition greater than the sum of its parts, was it worthwhile--or even possible--to bother with the building blocks?

Questions like this got us thinking. More rules and guidelines were the wrong thing when the company was young and growing. We were small. Our touch points were closer. You didn't have to turn in a form for someone else to do something for you--you just walked over to the one person who did it. But as we grew and the company got bigger, we understood that some process might actually help free time and energy.

In search of how to introduce more process without smothering our culture, we consulted a handful of kindred spirits--companies we believe have built and maintained strong, organic cultures. After all, we've always been big believers in seeking inspiration from companies that do things better than we--be it consumer-facing stuff like branding and packaging or behind-the-scenes areas of expertise like R&D and distribution. So, we figured, why not ask others' advice on culture?

In search of perspective, we approached six companies we knew and respected--Apple, Google, Pixar, Nike, Starbucks, and Innocent, the trendy British beverage maker--asking each of them one key question, "What really matters to you when it comes to great culture?" Unsurprisingly, the six had a lot to say. Taking it all down, we noticed three key themes common to all of them:

FOCUS ON HIRING GREAT PEOPLE Rather than hiring on expertise alone, make sure personalities and attitudes match your company. If you're about to hire someone and your gut tells you they're not a good fit, leave the seat open for now.

EMPHASIZE CULTURE FROM THE BEGINNING Explain the company's culture to new hires, making it clear to them that they were hired in part because of how they fit in.

GIVE PEOPLE LOTS OF FEEDBACK Take the time on a regular basis to remind your employees how they're doing vis-a-vis your values and culture. In addition, we noticed that all our kindred spirits encouraged their employees to embrace a sense of purpose at work. It was less a rule than a value, a shared belief that motivated everyone in his or her unique way. Reflecting on our own situation, we understood that our culture needed a set of values that clarified our purpose as a company.

This was the turning point. Though we'd never before defined our values, Method had always been a purpose-driven company. Purpose was one of our key competitive advantages--motivating us to work harder, longer, and smarter than our competition. Shared values and purpose inspired us. There was only thing left to do: articulate exactly what those were.

Combining our offsite notes with the suggestions we had gleaned from our culture idols, we recruited a handful of team members from various departments and asked them to work with our leadership team members to distill everything down to five core values. The team became known as the Values Pod.

Sure, we could have boiled everything down between the two of us, but we wanted our values to come from the bottom up. Years later, we discovered that companies like Zappos and Innocent had gone through the same process. (To say nothing of the founding fathers ...) Consider the benefits. Drawing your values from the company ranks ensures that they will represent the richness of the brand, stay relevant at every level, and be embraced by employees year after year.

After incorporating input from every level of the company, our Values Pod presented us the final list:

• Keep Method weird.
• What would MacGyver do?
• Innovate, don't imitate.
• Collaborate like crazy.
• Care.

Known collectively as our Methodology, these values have become the backbone of our culture obsession -- a framework to provide our team members with direction and space to grow.

Our values help channel the frenetic atmosphere of innovation and quixotic spontaneity so vital to our success, into a mutual sense of purpose. To integrate them into our day-to-day operations and make them actionable, we've printed them on cards illustrating how each value translates into behavior. By creating an annual deck of cards bound by a key ring, rather than a standard sheet of paper, people can hang the values at their desks, and they are easier to share. Along with the right physical reinforcements--like our open-office floor plan--our values cultivate the kind of environment that inspires the real magic: those everyday individual actions that make our company flourish. Would our values work for you? Maybe. But adopting another company's values is like letting someone else design your dream house or write your wedding vows. Establishing your values is your chance to turn yourself inside out and see what you're really made of as a brand.

Excerpted from The Method Method by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry by arrangement with Portfolio Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry.

[Images courtesy Method]

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8 Comments

  • Lisa Jackson

    I agree with the 3 main themes of  "what best companies do" to build great workplace cultures ... and I'd like to respectfully submit 3 brief additions (many legacy companies don't have these and haven't for a long, long time):

    1) Lead with passion, preferably to serve. If the idea or project doesn't get juices flowing - and can't be directly tied to what your customer needs or wants - don't do it. Less really IS more. Most companies should be doing less.

    2) Reward risk-taking behavior. This was implied in the Method values, but is very often subtly discouraged by "punitive" or "parental" management styles, especially when someone blows it. Thomas Watson (IBM founder) famously once said to a one of his staff who expected to be fired after making a $2 million mistake "I just invested $2 million in your learning.  You're not going anywhere."

    3) Fingerprints. One of Method's values is "collaborate." To really put this into action requires leaders to"ask for input" BUT make it clear who's deciding. (ie, don't get paralyzed by consensus). More fingerprints means leaner processes and fewer of them.

    Have fun creating a weird, innovative, collaborative and brave company spirit.

    P.S. I love Method's products! Clearly you're doing a lot right ...

  • Lisa Jackson

    I agree with the 3 main themes of  "what best companies do" to build great workplace cultures ... and I'd like to respectfully submit 3 brief additions (many legacy companies don't have these and haven't for a long, long time):

    1) Lead with passion, preferably to serve. If the idea or project doesn't get juices flowing - and can't be directly tied to what your customer needs or wants - don't do it. Less really IS more. Most companies should be doing less.

    2) Reward risk-taking behavior. This was implied in the Method values, but is very often subtly discouraged by "punitive" or "parental" management styles, especially when someone blows it. Thomas Watson (IBM founder) famously once said to a one of his staff who expected to be fired after making a $2 million mistake "I just invested $2 million in your learning.  You're not going anywhere."

    3) Fingerprints. One of Method's values is "collaborate." To really put this into action requires leaders to"ask for input" BUT make it clear who's deciding. (ie, don't get paralyzed by consensus). More fingerprints means leaner processes and fewer of them.

    Have fun creating a weird, innovative, collaborative and brave company spirit.

    P.S. I love Method's products! Clearly you're doing a lot right ...

  • TrivWorks

    Great to focus on the under-reported importance of culture in the workplace. Employee performance & productivity depends so much on a work force which understands and shares the values of the organization!

  • matt rofeld

    "...rather than hiring on expertise
    alone, make sure personalities and attitudes match your company. If you're
    about to hire someone and your gut tells you they're not a good fit, leave the
    seat open for now..." So we are back to square one---"if you don't conform to what we think is the 'right' attitude and 'personality', you are not welcome here".The point is that the innovative, creative, entrepreneurial sorts come with special attitudes and personalities--you need a system and culture that gives space to such people.

  • Rick Kennett

    What a wonderful story, and such astute comments by Dale, John and Andrei. I agree totally with the notion that in a 'start up', folks work with one another and not for 'someone's'. I would add to that by first suggesting we look at the picture of the Method Team.  Hold that image. Now think of traditional organizations and the 'hierarchy of management'. Those hierarchies composed of 'senior management', executives, middle managers, leaders, etc,  are challenged. In fact, they are dying.  But we work for, and or, among them. The issue is perception. The differing perception of what is wrong and what must be done. Perceptions are created with age, experience, and in these older organizations those perceptions are strong. They constrain change, communication and collaboration. The resulting "Culture" hobbles the organization, customers and suppliers.  Look again at the picture. These folks share time and many of the same values. It makes it easier to agree on everything... they see things similarly, they share perception. Interesting too that they, Method, are small, agile and among many,many, many, small nimble organizations all nipping at market share in a global environment. 

    I believe strongly in the bottom up approach when  establishing culture but I have found it to be nearly impossible in older, traditional organizations where 'stability' is prized, while chaos, which drives learning, change and order is shunned. This old I.T. Weenie applauds the thinking and the practice of organizations that realize that change needs to be a core competency and then actively work to create a culture that supports it.

  • Dale Hintz

    Eric and Adam:
    First two paragraphs state and reinforce that “culture defies cultivation”, which I wholeheartedly reject.  Instead, I contend “constructive culture demands cultivation”.  In the third paragraph you thankfully do a 180 and adopt a “Ministry of Culture” as Andrea, saw the need for a gardener to cultivate your valuable culture.   This 180 correctly recognizes that culture needs cultivation just like any other vital business asset (inventory, cash, equipment, brand).
    A constructive and adaptive Culture drives profitable alignment between all stakeholders.  Kotter and Heskett’s seminal “Corporate Culture & Performance” is the basis for my opinion on culture.  Alignment unfortunately is not natural – it takes intentional work up front to create (your Value Pod) and intentional work over time to maintain. 
    Think about a car – off the show room floor everything’s aligned but pot holes, curbs and just driving create a deteriorating situation that won’t get better on its own.  To keep effective and efficient alignment requires measurement and adjustment.  You can drive a misaligned car but gas mileage (financial performance) and the ride itself (engagement) suffer significantly.  Business, like a car runs much better when aligned. 
    I agree that Values are best when all parties are involved in developing.  Values are a proactive starting point and reflect a “want to” embraced by all.  On the other side are top down Rules that are reactive and reflect a “have to” that are abrasive to all. 
    Down the road effective Values require measured, proactive and intentional cultivation.  Your article describes a positive first step - congrats.  But while celebrating initial success anticipate misalignment down the road because stuff happens.  I have worked with many businesses to first measure Values alignment and then take corrective “want to” actions.  It’s not trying to find fault but a good steward anticipates misalignment and plans a proactive maintenance process to keep the magic alive.
    Good Luck as you drive your company forward.
    Dale Hintz – Constructive Culture Gardener and Value’s Mechanic

  • John I. Todor, Ph.D.

    Your focus on maintaining your culture while you grow is commendable. However, as Andrei points out it is a very different kettle of fish when one is trying to create a collaborative, working together culture in an existing company. In today's fast-changing, uncertain and increasingly complex business climate it is important that companies develop highly adaptive behavior that enable them to create and deliver value to customers as customers themselves shift. This is very different from the traditional focus on internal operational efficiency and making the change meets all sorts of roadblocks.

    On a positive note, existing companies should be looking a fast scaling newer companies who are successful because they embrace a "working together" culture. Zappos and yours come to mind. It is not possible to simply copy the culture or edicts, but it is possible to envision a new internal/external operating system and set a plan to make the shift.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Mindshift Innovation

  • atimoshenko

    In a start-up you work with people. In most mature companies you work for people. This is the issue, not any particular form of corporate culture. As soon as anyone in the company leadership adopts the attitude that he or she has employees working for them, the magic will be lost.