Culture is something we obsess over at Unreasonable. No matter what, every organization has their own culture. (Whether intentional or not, whether healthy or stifling, your organization has one.)

Most companies put up a manifesto of what they stand for that is written in elegant prose. Though putting this manifesto on your wall may feel like an accomplishment, this is only the first step in creating a culture worth caring about. What matters most is not what you say, it’s what you do. If you are listing out your company’s values, I’m much more concerned with what the policies, traditions, and habits are around actualizing them.

There’s no such thing as culture, only cultural practices. Tweet This Quote

In sharing a conversation with Banks Benitez from the Unreasonable Institute, he once told me that there’s no such thing as culture, only cultural practices. I couldn’t agree more. It comes down to the policies, habits, and traditions that your company lives by. Out of these, your culture will be emergent. This may seem easy when your organization is small like ours, but recently, a co-founder of Unreasonable Mexico reached out with this simple question: “How do you develop an incredible organizations culture and keep it while growing from 2 to 10 to 50 to 500 people?” It’s a damn good questions. Below I’ve done my best to address it.

It’s all about small behaviors at the individual level. I learned this from George Kembel, co-founder of Stanford’s d.school, when I had the privilege of running [email protected] with him. He taught me the lesson of scaling culture with the analogy of a school of fish. Strange? I know. But let me explain.

You need to remove our traditional concept of leadership to be successful at this. Tweet This Quote

From the outside, a school of fish is insanely complicated and beautiful to watch—thousands of fish somehow follow each other in perfect formation. Is there one fish boss telling all of the others what to do? No. Can you imagine a big company with a CEO who is able to get 1,000 people to do the exact same thing at the same time in a beautiful way? Don’t think so. If you try to manage culture from the top-down, just as it wouldn’t work for the school of fish, it won’t work for your company. You need to remove our traditional concept of leadership to be successful at this.

If instead you offer individual policies that direct action, it can shape the behavior of an entire group. In George’s analogy, rather than having a CEO-fish, let’s imagine that instead, each individual fish follows these two rules: 1) Always swim close to your neighbor; 2) If you see something scary, swim away. Immediately, if every fish abides by these two simple policies, they are empowered to always swim as a collective. Quite simply, that is how you scale culture. It comes down to the individual behaviors of you and your teammates. Whether it’s a startup team of 4 or a multinational with 100,000 employees, it’s all about the individual. (click here to watch the TEDxTalk George gave on this)

Why not create a company that also helps you become the best version of your whole self? Tweet This Quote

During this seafaring experiment that was [email protected], we talked about the culture we wanted to create for our team on the ship. But in all honesty, I failed as a leader because I stopped there. Working 20-hour days to run an accelerator program and teach a class with hundreds students while sailing around the world quickly inundated our small team. Afterwards, Julie Markham and Taylor Rowe (two teammates from [email protected] who stayed with Unreasonable Group afterward) and I sat down and for five months we tried to figure out what policies and traditions we could bake into our company DNA that actually reflect each of our core values. What traditions would we adopt at the individual level that could scale with Unreasonable as we grow… just like the school of fish. View out our internal website at Unreasonable Values to see what we ultimately came up with.

To making this real, let’s look at a few key examples.

One of our values is “learn always.” At Unreasonable, we push people to become the best versions of their work selves and more productive than they ever thought possible. But we didn’t want to stop there. Why not create a company that also helps you become the best version of your whole self? In order to live that, we created a learning fund where everybody gets $500/month to spend toward anything they want to learn. If you want to learn to mountain bike, then go buy a mountain bike. If you want to learn to code, hire a teacher or take a class. Every individual has access to this fund on our team at Unreasonable Group.

Similarly, at the start of each month, everyone selects a daily habit to focus—something healthy that they want to get addicted to. To create accountability and support, we share our habits with the team and put it in writing at the start of every month. Each day you break your habit, you put $50 in “The Unreasonable Party Jar.” If you want to give up coffee for the month, when you slip and drink a cup of Joe one Tuesday morning, that coffee cost you $54 instead of $4. My past daily habits have been everything from meditate daily to make certain the first email I send out every day is one of gratitude. And when there’s a $50 consequence for each time I miss my habit, you can bet I fulfill what I pledged to myself and the team. In this way, the company is helping you become the version of yourself.

Another value of ours is “treat others like the Messiah.” In the first year of the Unreasonable Institute, one of our biggest expenses was purchasing life-sized penguins and shipping them as a thank you to the people who supported us. After the Girl Effect Accelerator, we sent over 100 penguins out over the course of two weeks. This cost us a few thousand dollars and took literally hundreds of hours.

We feel strongly that there’s nothing more important than appreciating people along the way, including each other. Tweet This Quote

Some people might say this is dumb or an excessive waste of time and money. We feel strongly that there’s nothing more important than appreciating people along the way, including each other. On Fridays at 5:00 pm, everyone at Unreasonable Group grabs a pen and paper and writes thank you notes to anyone who made an impression on you that week. These types of habits lead to a culture of gratefulness and appreciating those who help us along the way.

A third value is “your energy > your time.” In other words, managing your energy is more important than managing your time. Sometimes that might mean you need to skip out for a week, and other times it might mean a 120-hour workweek.

This is why we have the policy of limitless paid vacation. If you yearn to do something, we just need a month’s notice and the promise that you will set the team up for success in your absence. We also require that everyone take one long weekend per month where you are 100 percent off the grid. We do all of this to ensure that when you are here, you’re working at a high RPM.

I believe the way you create and scale culture is through the practices that get down to the individual level. We designed all of these policies and more in order to engage the individual. In so doing, we strive live our values and create a collective culture—when we are a small team and hopefully, when we get to be much larger. For more on our values at Unreasonable Group —check out Unreasonable Values.

Daniel Epstein

Author Daniel Epstein

Daniel has an obsession. He believes to his core in the potential of entrepreneurship to solve the greatest challenges of this century and he has dedicated his life accordingly. He is the proud founder of the Unreasonable Group.

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