Long Pressed #3: Culture Fitness Not Just Culture Fit
Imagine the sum of the world’s knowledge and insight as one big circle, the infinite space around it everything out there still left to discover. We grow up learning what we’re supposed to learn. Our knowledge starts at the center of that big circle and slowly expands outward. As we refine our interests and further our education, our little circle starts to grow a mountain of specialized knowledge. They say a graduate student’s mountain of knowledge will just touch the edge of that big circle, and doctorates are only awarded to those who break through that bigger circle and contribute to it. This is how we think of Culture Fit, the patterns that help us identify those doctoral candidates that will break through.
Culture fit is a vital part of building and maintaining a high performing team and has become a popular assessment during the hiring process. It's more obvious how to assess someone's technical abilities and the hard skills needed for the job, but how does one think about and evaluate culture fit? What is culture fit?
Culture fit assessments should focus more on whether this person will thrive within your current working environment. How they will interact with the company's work patterns.
Rarely are two companies alike, but you can observe common patterns across environments. Knowing your work style patterns will help you find people that can effectively work in your environment. This is the meaning of culture fit.
Patterns of working environments
Good cultural patterns create a living environment and organic engagement. Everyone has skin in the game and feels empowered to do their best work.
Bad culture patterns can rob people of their sense of belonging. They can deter people's ability to thrive.
They create life, by allowing people to release their energy, by allowing people, themselves, to become alive. Or, in other places, they prevent it, they destroy the sense of life, they destroy the very possibility of life, by creating conditions under which people cannot possibly be free. - Christopher Alexander on patterns which are alive
Asynchronous vs. Synchronous
Organizations vary from asynchronous to fully synchronous collaboration environments. In asynchronous companies, people work on their own time. Most decisions in these organizations are made independently or using asynchronous communications tools (i.e. email, long-form writing tools). Synchronous-first companies spend a large portion of working hours in groups and require frequent meetings to get in sync and make decisions. These contrasting work styles require different mindsets, tools, and experiences. We need to assess the candidate's ability to fit and thrive in a given environment.
Here are some traits to look for when hiring people for asynchronous work environments.
Hire people that feel comfortable working alone and thrive on deep work.
Clear and concise written communication is critical. When working asynchronously, it's often necessary to make decisions or to integrate your work with others. Thus, all employees should be able to clearly and concisely communicate their points in written form.
Hire Managers of One. Asynchronous work requires relentless self-management and focus on outcomes.
We strongly recommend and prefer optimizing for asynchronous work even when hiring people in a more synchronous environment. People that thrive asynchronously can often succeed in more synchronous environments, but the reverse isn't true.
If your environment is more collocated and heavy on meetings, you should also ensure you hire people that:
Can concisely and clearly communicate verbally
Aren't afraid to speak up in a face-to-face meeting
Are more extroverted and don't feel drained by the abundance of face-to-face interactions.
Can stay focused through many distractions and are not afraid to say no.
Remote vs. collocated
Commonly companies fit on a spectrum between collocated and remote. Even within a company, departments vary on the remote spectrum. People that thrive in asynchronous environments are already well equipped to perform in Remote Work environments, but there are a couple of traits you can look for.
Does this person have a quiet place where they can think and work deeply? If not, the company can choose to provide such space in co-working or other facilities.
Remote doesn't typically mean asynchronous all the time. You still need to make time to integrate your work and get in sync from time to time. If you're hiring people in various timezones, ensure there is time flexibility or enough of a work day overlap to allow for these interactions to happen without being forced.
There are certain types of work that might require more collocation or proximity to a location. For example, product managers should typically spend a lot of time talking to customers. For many companies, remote interaction with the customer might be enough, but there is no getting away from being onsite in some industries. For example, if you develop manufacturing software, there is no way to avoid spending time in a manufacturing plant to understand customer struggles.
For jobs that require onsite presence, ensure that the person you're hiring has the ability and the will to be onsite. Sometimes employers who try to attract employees underestimate how much time onsite will be required to be successful. Be honest and transparent about the requirements for being physically present.
Centralized vs. decentralized decision making
In some companies, decisions are made from the top by the CEO, product manager, or lead developer, who pass it down to the people doing the work. In others, people doing the work have more latitude to make certain decisions. Even within a single company, these principles can vary from department to department and team to team.
Decentralized decision making is a spectrum. No company is a true democracy, nor should it be (we prefer an Idea Meritocracy if possible). But companies that force more decisions downstream benefit from employees feeling more empowered, and as a result, they are more engaged.
Employees want to feel empowered and seek a feeling of belonging. Companies that lean more towards centralized decision making create an inner conflict and deflate morale.
Patterns which prevent us from resolving our conflicting forces leave us almost perpetually in a state of tension - Christopher Alexander
Hire people who love being empowered and are good at making trade offs.
Assess how people view mistakes. Good employees view failures as learning opportunities rather than something to avoid at all costs. Ask about a recent failure and what resulted. Did it lead to more processes and risk aversion or a better outcome?
Ensure you genuinely have an environment that promotes decision making, as people who want to own their work and making progress will quickly lose motivation in such conditions.
If your environment is more on the centralized decision spectrum, you should be honest about this during interviews. Hiring hourly contractors might be a good option in these environments. Many contractors are happy to just do the work you pay them for.
Risk aversion vs. risk taking
There is also a big difference between companies' cultures when it comes to risk-taking. Many companies embrace the "move fast and break things" mantra, where others lean more towards the "don't break things" side.
Find where on the spectrum your company fits. If you are all about taking risks:
Hire people who have a bias for action and are Independent Thinkers
Hire people who know how to break a project down to its necessary parts and focus on essential vs. trivial
Favor people who try to deeply understand the problem before going all-in on a solution.
Hire people who view mistakes as opportunities to learn and iterate
There are some companies that by the nature of their business have to lean towards less risk taking. Companies in the financial industry that handle large amounts of money, companies in the healthcare space that in addition to dealing with private patient data are also responsible for life or death decisions, have less tolerance towards risk. We find that, although managing risk is important in these companies, the majority of the true risk occurs at the edges of company activities. Still, risk aversion can swiftly spread to every other function of the organization.
Companies where mistakes can be catastrophic by nature should have more processes and protocols in place to reduce chances of errors. In these environments:
Hire people who are detail oriented and can thoroughly analyze side effects
Hire people who can balance decisions about what's risky and requires more thorough analysis and work vs. what elements of a project would benefit more from quick action.
Hiring people who don't fit into your current work patterns can cause tension and rob the team of life.
Most companies tend to assess for skills and technical abilities needed to perform the job, but fail to properly evaluate the culture fit.
Teams that find a good culture fit among the team members will experience Organic Engagement. These interactions will lead to high productivity without the management overhead.
Most great work happens during Deep Work working alone and then integrating the individual pieces with others. We tend to rightfully emphasize the ability to work on a team, but take the ability to function and work deeply alone for granted.
How your organization functions is critical to knowing which people will thrive in it. For most Knowledge Workers, remote and asynchronous environments offer an advantage. Optimizing for remote and asynchronous will allow you to hire from a wider talent pool, unconstrained by timezones.
Remote and distributed teams will benefit from moving more towards the asynchronous spectrum and hiring people who can productively work alone.
The best way to test for culture fit is to work with a person on an actual real-life project. Understand how they make decisions and Trade Offs and how they interact with the rest of the team and their environment. This is difficult or, at times, impossible to do in the real world. You're usually interviewing someone who already has a job or, for other reasons, can't dedicate their time.
Present Past Projects - The best way we've found to assess for culture fit retrospectively is by having the candidate prepare and present their previous project(s).
If you want someone to work on a real project which requires more than a few hours of work, you should consider paying them a fair rate for their time. Show people that you value their time. More candidates will be willing to participate, and they won't feel like you're taking advantage of them.
Avoid creating a homogeneous idea environment by hiring people based on seeing eye to eye or having a common background or views. Having a diversity of ideas, experiences, and backgrounds (cultural and professional) is vital for the success of Modern Business. Focus more on skills, problem-solving abilities, and approach to work.
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