Create rules that are unique to your company

By Bill Taylor

Ben Horowitz, the high-profile venture capitalist behind some of Silicon Valley’s fastest-growing start-ups, is out with an intriguing book, What You Do Is Who You Are, which emphasizes the power of culture, rather than technology or money, as a driver of business success. One of his most intriguing insights is that powerful cultures are built around what he calls “shocking rules”—rituals and practices that are memorable, yet so “bizarre,” that people who hear about them wonder why they are necessary.

Horowitz’s argument is as simple as it is powerful. Truly great organizations work as distinctively as they hope to compete.

Detroit-based Quicken Loans, the hard-charging financial-services company, is now the largest originator of home mortgages in the country. Its culture is obsessed with a nonnegotiable rule: Every customer phone call or e-mail must be returned on the same day it is received even if it arrives minutes before an employee is about to leave.

Years back, I immersed myself in the colorful (and highly successful) world of Cranium, the Seattle-based maker of board games that reinvigorated a tired category of family entertainment. Everywhere I went—whether I was hanging out with products designers or the IT staff or the CFO—everyone would question whether a particular product, process or meeting was “Chief.”

What’s Chief? It stands for “clever, high-quality, innovative, friendly and fun,” and it was an ethos that was meant to infuse every aspect of how the company did business—from its games to its hiring process to its meetings to how the offices were designed.

Students at Texas A&M don’t abide by business versions of “shocking rules”—this is a campus, after all, not a company—but they have colorful rituals and traditions. Upperclassmen and alumni often pepper their conversations with the term “Whoop!”—which is how the school’s many different “yells” (fight songs and other expressions of spirit) often end. But students are not allowed to say Whoop until they begin their junior year, and violations of the rule are frowned upon.

“Aggie Culture” is not exactly my cup of tea, but most of Texas A&M’s nearly 70,000 students could not imagine life without it. And they have an expression, which they have been reciting for decades, to capture what makes their culture so distinct: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

That’s a neat way to capture the power of culture in organizations from all sorts of fields: To build something distinctive in the marketplace, you first have to build something distinctive in the workplace.

Bill Taylor is a cofounder of Fast Company.


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