Honeycomb recently announced our $50M Series D funding round. We aren’t the type to hype this a lot; Emily summed it up crisply as, “Living another day on someone else’s money isn’t business success, even though it is a lovely vote of confidence.”
Agreed. The vote of confidence does mean more than usual, given the dire state of VC funding these days, but…raising money is not success. Building a viable, sustainable company is success.
Whenever we are talking to investors, something that inevitably comes up is what a bomb ass team 🌈 we have. They have always been impressed by our ability to recruit and retain marquee names, people we “shouldn’t have been able to get” at our stage; honestly it’s even better than they realize, because we have heavy hitters all up and down the company, most of whom simply aren’t as well known. 😉 (Fame, and this may shock you, is not a function of talent.)
People join Honeycomb for many reasons, but “culture” is one of the most commonly cited. We have never been shy about talking about the ways we think tech culture sucks, or the experiments we are running. But this has given rise to the occasional impression that we are primarily cultural innovators who occasionally write software. We really aren’t.
In fact, I’d say the opposite is true. We try to choose boring culture.
What The Fuck Does “Culture” Even Mean?
Ok, so this is where the problem starts. This is why it grates on my nerves any time someone starts making pronouncements about how “your culture is bad”, “culture is the problem”, “fix your broken culture”… AUUGGGHHH. Those sentences are MEANINGLESS.
What does “culture” even mean?? Let’s consult the interwebs:
- Culture: “An umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions and norms for a group; knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of those individuals”
- Culture: “The shared values, goals, attitudes and practices that characterize an organization; working environment, company policies and employee behavior”
- Culture: “Maintain tissue cells, bacteria, etc in conditions suitable for growth”
Well, at least that last one makes sense. 😛 But if culture means everything, then culture means nothing. That’s just not helpful!
Instead, let’s disambiguate company culture into two categories. There is the formal culture of the organization (meetings, mission/vision, management, job ladders, hiring practices, strategy, organizational structure, team dynamics, and so on), and there is the informal culture of the people, the ways that humor, playfulness, and practices manifest in groups and individuals.
Organizational culture is professional, formal, structural, institutional. Managerial responsibilities, promotions, compensation plans, and fiduciary duties are just a few of the .many aspects of organizational culture.
Informal culture is chaotic, joyful, free-spirited, and fun, individualized, inherently anarchic and bottoms-up. It’s things like writing release notes in limerick form, bringing banana bread to work after an outage, long pun threads, slack channels dedicated to pets, competing on the number of employees named “Jess”* vs “Chris”*.
Organizational culture is the cake; informal culture is the frosting. Organizational culture is what leaders are hired to build, informal culture is what bubbles up irrepressibly in the gaps. (I wish I had better names for these!) And when it comes to formal, organizational culture, you don’t want to be in the business of innovating.
Culture Serves The Business
As a leader, you should absolutely care about your culture, but your primary responsibility is the health of the business. The purpose of your culture is to make your business succeed. It does not serve you, and it does not serve the people you care about, to be unclear on this front.
I don’t mean to make it sound like this is simple or easy. It is not. You are dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, and it is all about tradeoffs. What might be best for an individual in the long run (for example, leaving your company to pursue another opportunity) might harm your business in the near term. Yet you might decide to celebrate them in leaving and not pressure them to stay, because you believe that what’s best for your business in the longer term is for employees to be able to trust their managers when they say, “I believe that working here is the best thing you can do for your career right now.”
The transactional nature of work relationships is how they differ from e.g. family relationships. You can form intense bonds and deep friendships with the people you work with — you may even form bonds that transcend your work relationship — but your relationship at work comes with terms and conditions.
Your company culture can’t be everything to everyone. Nor should you try.
You HAVE to care more about the health of the business than about culture for culture’s own sake. Even if — especially if — you have lots of strong opinions about culture, and there are lots of ways you want to deviate from common wisdom. Doing well at business is what earns you more innovation tokens to invest.
Dan McKinley coined the phrase “choose boring technology” and the concept of innovation tokens nearly a decade ago.
“Boring” should not be conflated with “bad.” There is technology out there that is both boring and bad . You should not use any of that. But there are many choices of technology that are boring and good, or at least good enough….The nice thing about boringness (so constrained) is that the capabilities of these things are well understood. But more importantly, their failure modes are well understood. — @mcfunley
The moral of the story is that innovation is costly, so you should choose standard, well-understood, rock-solid technologies insofar as you possibly can. You only get a few innovation tokens to spend, so you should spend them on technologies that can give you a true competitive advantage — not on, like, reinventing memcache for the hell of it.
The same goes for running a business, and the same goes for organizational culture. We have collectively inherited a set of default practices that work pretty well, like the 40 hour work week and having 1x1s with your manager. You CAN choose to do something different, but you should probably have a good reason. To the extent that you can learn from other people’s experience, you probably should, whether in business or in tech; innovation is expensive, and you only get so many tokens. Do you really want to spend one on a radical reinvention of your PTO policy? How does that serve you?
Innovation gets all the headlines, but I would posit that what most companies need is actually much simpler: organizational health.
Great Culture begins with Organizational Health
There’s this book by Patrick Lencione called “The Advantage: How Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.” (He is best known for writing “Five Dysfunctions of a Team“.) This guy is to organizational health what James Madison was to constitutional government: a very specific kind of genius.
I picked up “The Advantage” in 2020, around the time Honeycomb stopped teetering on the brink of failure, once it became clear we were likely to be around for a while. It made a huge impression on me. He makes the case that most businesses spend a ton of energy on trying to be “smart”, and relatively little on being “healthy”.
Healthy orgs are characterized by minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover. Health begets — and trumps — intelligence.
As Lencione says, an organization that is healthy will inevitably get smarter over time. People in a healthy organization will learn from each other, identify problems, and recover quickly from mistakes. Without politics and confusion, they will cycle through problems and rally much faster than dysfunctional rivals will. And they create an environment in which everyone else can do the same, which creates a multiplier effect.
The healthier an org is, the more of its collective intelligence it is able to tap into and use. Most orgs exploit only a fraction of the knowledge, experience, and intellectual capital available to them, but the healthy ones can tap into almost all of it.
Organizational Health Is Too Boring
No one would disagree with any of this, in principle. ☺️ EVERYBODY wants to work at a place where the mission, vision, and values are clear, meaningful and inspiring; where everyone is rallied around the same winning strategy; and where it’s crystal clear how your role specifically will contribute to that success. Everybody agrees that a healthy organizational culture leads to better outcomes.
So why isn’t every company like that?
Well, it is much easier said than done. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It is unglamorous work, difficult to measure, and at the end of the day we are always making risky decisions between conflicting tradeoffs based on partial information. We are imperfect meat sacks who lack self awareness, struggle to understand each other, and get hangry and snap. And the job is never done. You never “get there”, any more than you are ever perfectly healthy with perfect relationships.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We don’t have to be perfect to be a meaningfully better presence in people’s lives. We just have to be healthy enough to achieve our goals.
Nobody Wants An “Exciting” Company Culture
When you tell your partner you had an exciting day at work, do they respond with “uh oh 😬🔥🧯”?
All too often, excitement at work comes from strategic swerves, projects getting canceled, lack of focus, missteps or conflicts, anxiety and passive aggression, outages or downtime, outrageous demands coming from out of left field, or getting information at the last minute that you should have had ages ago. Living on the edge of your seat can be very stimulating! Firefighting is a huge rush, and if you’re part of the essential glue holding this creaky vessel together, you can get hooked on feeling desperately needed.
But this isn’t good for your cortisol levels, and it doesn’t move the company forward. When so much of your energy goes to bailing water and staying afloat, you don’t have much left over for rowing the oars. You want energy going to the oars.
Should work be exciting? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s not the adjective I would reach for. Emotional rollercoaster rides don’t provide the kind of circumstances that tend to unlock great design or engineering, or collaboration or focus. I would rather reach for words like achievement, fulfillment, pride, comradeship, or the joy of being part of something greater than yourself, not “exciting” or “fun”.
Leaders Worry Too Much About Making Work Fun
As a leader, your job is not to “make work fun”. You are not here to entertain your employees. Your responsibility is to build a formal culture that works, that supports the success of the business.
So what, am I dooming you to a life of bureaucratic beige and meetings without puns? Fuck no.
If formal organizational culture is like the architecture, then informal culture is furnishings, light displays, murals and banners — whatever you do on the inside. You don’t want someone getting overly creative with the load-bearing beams. Save that for when it’s time to paint “Frozen” murals on the walls and hang the matching icicle curtains.
You want formal culture to be boring, stable, reliable, load-bearing…because this creates a safe structure for people to bring the humor, the fun, the joy, the delight, without any fear of building collapse. The company doesn’t have to bring the fun; people bring the fun. Have you met people? People are fucking weirdos. 🥰 If you create an emotionally safe zone and the conditions for success, informal culture will thrive. 🪅People bring the fun🪅 — they always do.
The best informal culture is almost always bottoms up. But managers, execs, HR/People teams, etc can encourage informal culture. One of the most powerful things you can do is just participate. Show up for drinks, play the board games, keep the puns rolling, get silly with your team! Your participation gives people permission and shows that you value their creative cultural labor at work.
Of course there are no bright lines — companies can throw great parties! — but that’s not the job; building a healthy org is the job. Doing that right frees people up to have joy at work. It makes the celebrations that much bigger, the fun that much funnier.
Success Is Rocket Fuel For Fun
Think back to the most corporate fun you’ve ever had at work — the biggest parties, celebrations, blowouts, etc. Were they holiday parties and random occasions, or were they actually linked to great achievements? I bet they were the latter.
You don’t gather at work for the fun of it, you come together to do great things. It stands to reason the peak moments of joy and bonding are fueled by a sense of accomplishment.
Even on a smaller scale, levity and joy are inextricably linked to doing great work and making customers happy. For example, ops/SRE teams are notorious for their gallows humor around outages (ops is ALWAYS the funniest engineering team, in my experience ☺️). But dark humor is only funny when you are also taking your work seriously. Joking about the inevitability of data loss stops being funny real fast if you are actually playing fast and loose with customer backups.
In the absence of success, progress, and high performance, the kind of “frosting” behaviors that bring so much hilarity to work — joking and teasing, puns and stories — actually stop being fun and start making people feel distracted, irritated and on edge. You don’t want to hear a steady stream of jokes from somebody who keeps letting you down.
Side note: unhealthy orgs may have pockets of humor, but it often comes at the expense of other, less prestigious teams. Lots of people may feel too anxious, powerless or threatened to participate. Your experience of whether those companies are “fun” or not is likely to depend heavily on where you sit in the hierarchy. But a healthy org creates the level conditions for humor, playfulness and creativity throughout the org.
Investing Your Innovation Tokens
So yeah. Despite our reputation for cultural innovation, I’d say we’re actually pretty conservative when it comes to operating a company.
Not only are we not revolutionaries, we are actually trying to do as little differently as possible, because innovation is costly!! Instead, we (as a leadership team) are more focused on trying to execute well and improve upon our organizational health. For the past year, we have been laboring especially hard over strategy — the diagnosis, guiding policy, and set of coherent actions we need to win. Our first responsibility is to make the business succeed, after all.
Which brings us back to the topic of innovation tokens.
I started writing down some of the innovation tokens I feel like we’ve spent. But it dawned on me that when I look at most of the cultural experiments we run, and the things we talk about and write about publicly — stuff like the dangers of hierarchy, hiring, interviewing, high-leverage teams, engineering levels, rituals for engineering teams, etc — it doesn’t feel like innovation at all. It’s all just about trying to have a healthier organization. Hierarchy sucks because visible hierarchy has been shown to dampen people’s creativity, motivation and problem-solving skills. Engineering levels are important because they bring clarity. And so on.
What makes something rise to the level of an innovation token is the amount of time we end up asking other people to invest lots of their time into.
- Like, we are 1.5 years into a 4 year experiment having an employee on our board of directors. We are about to spin up an internal Advisory Panel to more broadly distribute the impact of our employee board member around the company.
- In the past, we have experimented with regular ethics discussion groups.
- Last year we did a deep dive into company values with small breakout groups.
- Some internal decisions around things like values are handled, not by estaff, but by a group of six people; one employee representative of each org, nominated by their VP; who do a deep dive into the material together and come back with a decision or recommendation.
- We are about to start the process of developing our own leadership curriculum. We know that we need to equip our managers with better tools, and culturally indoctrinate new employees, so I am excited to build something with our cultural fingerprints all over it.
We run a lot of experiments around transparency, like, the agenda for exec staff meetings can be viewed by the whole company. After every board meeting, we present the same thing we showed to the board to the whole company during all-hands. We are transparent on salary bands. Stuff like that.
We are far from perfect; we have a long ways to go, and when I look around the org it’s hard not to only see all the work left to be done. But we are a lot healthier and better off than we were a year ago, which was better off than we were two years ago, let alone three.
The Experience Of Making This Will Be With Us Forever
A few months ago I was reading this lengthy profile of Sarah Polley in the New Yorker, as she was doing a bunch of press for her new movie, “Women Talking”. (The movie itself sounds incredibly intense; I am still trying to find time and emotional energy to watch it. Someday!)
One thing she said got lodged in my brain, and I’ve been unable to forget it ever since. She’s talking about the experience of having been a child actor, and how intensely it informs the experience she strives to create for everybody working on the set of one of her movies; where parents get to go home and have dinner with their kids, etc.
[He] told her, “If this film is everything we want it to be, maybe, if we are very lucky, it will affect a few people for a little while, in a way that is out of our control. The only thing that’s certain is that the experience of making it will be with all of us—it will become part of us—forever. So we must try our best to make it a good experience.”
Making a movie that lots of people want to see, one that was a good financial return on investment, buys you the ability to make even more movies, employ more people, take even bigger creative risks. If all you want to do is be a niche indie player, working on a shoestring budget, more power to you. But if you really believe in your ideas, and you want to see them go mainstream … you need mainstream success.
Sarah Polley makes movies. We make developer tools. ☺️ But the same thing is true of working at Honeycomb.
If we are very lucky, and work very hard, our work may help teams build better software and spend fewer, more meaningful hours at work, for a long time to come. I love our mission. But the only certain thing is that the experience of making it will be with all of us, become part of us, forever.
So we should try our best to make it a good experience. ☺️
(1) Inherited Defaults
How to access these inherited defaults can be a bit more complicated than I make it sound. Working as a manager at Facebook for two years taught me more about these defaults than anything else I’ve ever done in my career. Big companies have had to figure a lot of shit out in order to function at scale, which is why I often advise anyone who plans on starting a company or being a director/VP to do a stint at one. Will Larson’s book “An Elegant Puzzle” does a great job of laying out defaults and best practices for engineering orgs, and his blog has even more useful bits.. Otherwise, you might wanna get yourself an advisor or two with a lot of operator experience, and get used to asking questions like “how does this normally get done?”
(2) Corporate Fun
There’s plenty of stuff in the grey area between formal, organizational culture and informal, individual culture. Companies often stray into fun-like adjacencies like holiday parties, offsites, etc. Fostering a sense of “play” and informality is actually really important for making teams click with each other, and obviously the company should foot the bill if it’s a work function. Just be mindful of what you’re doing and what your goals are when you veer into the rocky shoals of Forced Corporate Fun. 😆