Grokking Corporate Culture

My friend Ben Mattes, a very talented producer for Ubisoft, made a great comment on my previous blog article which I’d like to unceremoniously lift out of context:

When I worked at Gameloft I invested significant energy into creative motivational ‘events’. When I left, the guy who replaced me continued this tradition and came up with (what I thought was) a great idea to help beat the heat in the summer. Instead of a traditional 5-7 with beer and chips, he brought in an ice-cream ‘team’ from the local ‘Ben And Jerry’s’ to serve cones and sundaes to the team after an important meeting. I liked the idea and tried it with my team shortly after starting at Ubisoft.

At the time no one said anything negative. They all had slightly bemused smiles on their faces and got in line to dutifully collect their ice-cream. Some even went back for seconds.

Months later, though, I learned that I had made an awful impression with this act. The team immediately questioned whether I “belonged” if I would favor ice-cream over beer (the stable for such events).

To this day whenever I bring the team together for beers the ice-cream fiasco comes up (all in good fun, I hope).

IMO, this has little to do with the effectiveness of unscheduled or non-monetary bonuses, but it’s a brilliant (if light-hearted) example of the importance of grokking corporate culture. This is especially true in the game industry, which attracts a large percentage of passionate employees with high expectations for a particular kind of life. And of course, when you have as many corporate acquisitions as you do in this industry, merging of cultures is also a huge issue (and, btw, a big reason in general for the failure of most acquisitions — in any industry.)

Corporate culture: kind of like quick-dry cement

Startups are much like very young children — impressionable. The attitudes and expectations of a few employees can shift in significant ways for some fuzzy period of time, but age and growth quickly change that. Once you’ve got a 40-man studio on your hands (give or take 20 employees), some things become very hard to alter. Examples:

  • Attitudes towards the company’s primary mission (i.e. “Make great casual games” or “Make fun games on time and under budget.”)
  • Attitudes towards customers (i.e. “they’re always right” or “they’ll eat what we tell them to and like it!”)
  • Attitudes towards hiring (i.e. “we only hire the smartest engineers with the best grades” or “we only hire really creative people who play musical instruments in their spare time.”)
  • Attitudes towards formality (i.e. “it doesn’t matter how you dress, as long as you work hard” or “professionalism first.”)

… and the list goes on, from the “little things” (expecting beers at events) to the “big things” (attitude towards customers). I put those in quotes because, IMO, there’s never a “little thing” when it comes to corporate culture.

Stepping into (or merging) established cultures

Being hired into a new, established team is (in some ways) no different than moving to a new country. If the cultures are similar, it’s a relatively easy transition — you don’t have to learn a new language, change the way you interact, etc. But if you’re moving from, say, the US to Japan, you better spend some time learning how people like to be greeted and spoken to, or you’re going to rub your new neighbors the wrong way.

Companies are no different. If people tend to be pretty formal, dressing and behaving informally will probably make you stand out (in a bad way.) If people are accustomed to a hierarchical mode of operation, disrespecting proper channels could be a fatal mistake. And if people expect beer on Fridays, it’s safer to serve beer than ice cream.  😉

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Sometimes standing out and/or trying to change an aspect of corporate culture works to everyone’s advantage. But it’s a tricky thing… significantly more so when you’re a new manager with limited relationships and credibility.

This is why mergers and acquisitions are such tricky things (and one reason why the majority of mergers and acquisitions actually fail to create value for shareholders.) Adapting to a new corporate culture as a manager is hard enough. Merging two (very or subtly) different corporate cultures is immeasurably harder.

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