I was the second employee to join Coffee & TV. As a start-up we struggled to articulate our proposed company culture. It wasn’t prescribed by a corporate umbrella or bestowed to us in an Employee Handbook, bound by the sweat and tears of our forefathers. In fact, the four founders of Coffee & TV began by creating a company culture based only on a very strong sense of what they didn’t want it to be.
Since then they have brought on board a team that have cultivated shared values, beliefs, policies and practices in a 4000sq ft petri dish. This long-running experiment now has a firmly embedded culture that is being microscopically interrogated through the lens of a global pandemic. On closer inspection we’ve discovered that it has spawned, matured and blossomed anew. It has given rise to a robust system of inheritance, a Darwinian cultural evolution no less! And we need this now more than ever before.
I used to believe that in order for a company culture to be unifying it needed to be set from the top down and intentionally harvested rather than allowed to evolve organically. We couldn’t possibly leave something so important to simply unfold. Left to its own devices a culture may become toxic, deceitfully dismantling the precious composition of company DNA.
I set about creating a deliberate definition that would enable us to shape attitudes, share behaviours and foster a united sense of purpose. But I couldn’t find the words. We all know what it means to experience culture but how do you scribe the nuances of unspoken mindsets, unseen feeling and perceived atmosphere? Culture can only be a lived experience, lived through an array of different perspectives. Prescribing it would be, well, too prescriptive.
In addition, behavioural scientists have identified that prescriptive culture can lead to imitation and conformity, which is catastrophic in creative business such as ours.
So, if you can’t articulate your company culture and shouldn’t prescribe it, how can you reasonably rely on it to carry you through the hard times and the good? To support an evolving cultural cacophony, it must be nurtured. If your agency, studio or collective needs a cultural boost, here’s my starter for ten:
Set Values. Coffee & TV’s values (love, trust, collaboration and exceptional) underpin our culture, setting the tone for almost every action, if not all. If a decision, no matter how big or small conflicts with our values, we know immediately not to pursue that avenue. This really helps us to avoid venturing down any fallacious paths. Our culture is both consciously and unconsciously inextricably linked to our values.
Learn and adapt. Cumulative cultural evolution has paved the way for our adaptive practices, techniques and bodies of knowledge that deliver our ability to tackle challenges and innovate. At Coffee & TV we have a ‘fail fast, learn fast’ culture. We welcome experimentation and commit a generous budget to L&D.
It’s not an HR function. Harvard Business Review
warned that the very best plans for strategy and execution can go off the rails when culture gets side-lined because leaders don’t understand its true power and dynamic. Someone smart once said ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ In fact, much like breakfast we begin every day with a cultural boost, a 15-minute Zoom meeting run by anyone in the company who has an idea, an experience, a piece of work they’d like to share. From a ‘scare school’ to CGI tools, nothing is off limits.
Culture doesn’t mean cult. Don’t ever let your culture reinforce outdated behaviours that need to be challenged. Horrific revelations spurred by the Black Lives Matter and TimeTo movements have exposed how damaging it can be to be blindsided by a history of industry-wide toxicity. We’re currently doing everything we can to interrogate and improve our diversity, inclusion and outreach so that the changes we make now shape the future landscape of the industry.
Measure it. At Coffee & TV we measure our impact on People, Profit and Planet (the Triple Bottom Line framework
coined by John Elkington some 25 years ago). We’re not focusing on our social, environmental and economic impact merely as an accounting tool but to push us to genuinely align these three aspects of our business. One cannot work without the other and each holds equal value. As cultural architects the 3 P’s form the load bearing posts upon which we’re growing our business.
Keep it up. Keep cultivating that culture. Covid-19 has dramatically impacted the way we work, creating a sizable space between us both physically and emotionally. The virtual void has undoubtedly placed stresses on our industry and the individuals within it.
Eight years on from when we first began, it’s still near impossible to articulate Coffee & TV’s company culture. It has evolved. It is a shared meme. It is an unwavering commitment. It is knowing the right thing to do. It is mutual respect and love. It is friends and colleagues and a folder of photographed memories. It is exceptional work. It is a unifying passion. It is an elusive beast that almost defies definition. But we rely on it nonetheless to bridge the gap, to pull us closer, to shape us, inspire us and unite us in a wayward world.
If I had to use words, I’d simply say ‘our culture IS us, and it’s fucking awesome.’ I’ll pop that in the Employee Handbook.