There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

How many ways can you categorise the ways that different startups organise themselves, the different flavours and colours of organisational culture adopted by companies through their life (and death). Far more than nine and sixty, I assure you. And, yes, each of them is right. Models of the world are usually helpful in making sense of the continuous chaos of reality.

I’d like to propose a very simple and useful model for startup (and, more widely, company) cultures, that I feel is relevant at this point in history: open and closed.

Hierarchical Pyramid

Closed cultures

There are a number of ways to run a closed culture, but the presence of any of the following features is usually a clear sign of an at least partially closed culture:

  • Secrecy by default: Business information is closed by default, on a need-to-know basis. Typically, only the senior management team has access to all the information (e.g. salaries and bonuses, detailed financials of the organisation, etc). These multi-layered secrets often form part and parcel of the power structure: the higher you are, the more information you have access to.
  • Top-down, hierarchical management: This can be implemented with varying degrees of flexibility, but the common element is the idea that you have a boss and you should do what they tell you. All closed cultures enable some elements of push-back from those savvy enough to know how to make their points from below, but the general mode of functioning is from the top to the bottom.
  • The Pyramid/Career Ladder: Closed organisations are without fail mapped out as pyramid-shaped: there is one CEO at the top, with a senior executive team below, and progressively wider layers as you go down. This Pyramid also provides the Career Ladder – the ever-receding MacGuffin1 that motivates people to work hard so they can one day get on top of the Pyramid and finally achieve true Success.
  • Focus on profit: The more advanced closed organisations tend to focus on profit above all2. This is measured as a number and is the primary driver of decision-making. If an action results in more profit, it’s worth doing. If the company makes more profit, it is more successful. Profit is the essential driver of all decisions. “How will it affect the bottom line?” is the main (or perhaps even only) question being asked.
  • Motivational measurements and individual incentives: Closed organisations, as they mature, learn to apply measurements as a method of ensuring performance. They will measure everything that can be measure and make up targets and projections (with varying degrees of involvement from those being measured), then hold people accountable to those estimates. Those who meet their targets are rewarded, and those who fail are punished.
  • Fixed roles and masks: In closed cultures, you are hired for a specific role. You can progress towards more managerial responsibilities through promotion, but typically, doing things outside of your role is discouraged (if only because it will step on the toes of the person who currently owns that role). In closed organisations you are your role. It’s no surprise, then, that most people put on a mask to go to work: while they are at the office, they are no longer a full person with a variety of wants and activities and aspirations, but a “Web Developer” or a “Marketing Manager”. Professional behaviour is all that’s accepted, and it’s all that’s given. 3
  • Distrust and control: A fundamental assumption of closed cultures is that people are lazy and cannot be trusted, so they need to be controlled, otherwise they will not do any work. This gives even more justification to adding more measurements and narrowly defining roles and performance criteria. When they don’t treat them like mindless cogs in a machine, closed cultures tend to treat employees like irresponsible children4.

There are countless examples of closed cultures: most of the companies and organisations in the world are run on the closed model. In fact, in many countries it is illegal to run a public company in an open way 5.  You’ve most likely worked for a closed company at some point in your life. In fact, chances are you’re working in one right now6.

Whilst closed cultures (which form the majority of business cultures today) are clearly capable of delivering great results, they have a number of deadly flaws, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later article. For now, let’s look at open cultures.

Open cultures

If there are many ways to run a closed culture, there are even more ways to run an open one7. Each open company tends to have its own way of expressing its culture. However, these are some typical commonalities by which to recognise an open culture:

  • Transparency by default: In open cultures, business information is publicly available to all employees. This includes salaries, but also bad news, strategic plans, problems, decisions, ideas, etc. People are trusted to be able to handle that information.
  • Flat hierarchy and/or self-management: If everyone knows everything and you’ve hired smart people in the right kinds of jobs, it is very difficult to maintain an arbitrary hierarchy, since everyone can contribute to any decision8. When you trust people, it is also unnecessary to set up managers whose job it is to check after them.
  • Personal development through work: When there is no career ladder, how do people achieve career progression? The obvious solution is that they take on more responsibilities without having to go “up” an arbitrary ladder. As a natural consequence of that, it is possible for people to fully express themselves in their work, by getting involved in their full range of interests, so they can achieve more personal development than they would in a narrow role with a career ladder.
  • Multiple stakeholders, values, and purpose: In open organisations, the idea of valuing profit above all others becomes obviously absurd. It’s not only shareholders, but also employees, suppliers, customers, society, and the environment, which matter. The company does not exist in a vacuum. Values become a way to express what the company cares about, rather just a motivational slogan. Along with the higher purpose of the company, they become the way that decisions get made in open cultures.
  • Team or company incentives: There is a progression from the closed culture approach of individual incentives, via team incentives, towards the eventual ideal, which is a system where base pay is determined by a combination of what the person is contributing, what the person needs, and what the company can afford, along with company-wide bonuses. Individual incentives are shunned.
  • Self-determined pay: One of the surefire signs of an open culture is when people determine their own pay. In most companies, this is unthinkable. In open cultures, it becomes a natural consequence of all the other stuff. After all, if you trust people to make all sorts of important decisions about the company, why not trust them to make this decision too?9
  • Separation of role and person: The idea that a person and their role are intrinsically bound becomes visibly stupid as the culture opens up. Eventually, it is clear that people are not their roles, but are capable of engaging in several roles simultaneously, contributing more fully to the organisation’s needs. This further enables people to accomplish themselves and to be fully themselves at work instead of wearing masks. One of the ways this is accomplished is through Open Allocation.
  • Trust: Perhaps most important is the fact that open cultures treat employees like adults, trusting them to do the right thing even in complex or ambiguous situations. There are of course processes to help people make better decisions, but the key point is that all these processes start from a perspective of trust and responsibility.

The benefits of running companies this way ought to be obvious, but in case they need to be spelled out:

  • People in open cultures are more engaged, happier, more creative, they contribute more, etc. This makes them much more fun to work in, both as a founder and as an employee, but also much more productive – people work much more effectively when they care.
  • Having a better environment makes it easier to hire great people.
  • Open cultures are way more adaptable to change. Change management is an oxymoron in an open culture: change happens constantly and continually, not through expensive, long-winded, and often failure-prone change processes.
  • Because they motivate people so much better, open cultures are, ironically, also better at achieving sustainable, long-term financial results10.

There are some examples of open cultures out there, too, to varying degrees. GrantTreeBuffer, Valve and Github, in the startup space, are known examples of open cultures. Others include Semco, Burtzorg, Happy Startup, MorningStar, and many others in all sorts of different contexts and sizes. All companies could adopt an open culture, but most don’t. Why is that?

Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux, studies a dozen or so open cultures and comes to the conclusion that two things are absolutely prerequisite for an open culture to exist for any length of time: both the CEO/Leader and the owners must be fully supportive of this (currently) unconventional way of operating. Otherwise, eventually the company hits a hard time, and either the CEO or the owners pressure it into returning to a more traditional (i.e. closed) mode of functioning. So the obvious reason why more companies are not currently open is because most CEOs are not prepared to let go of their control mindset, and when they are, the owners (whether private owners or VCs with board seats and a traditional, closed mindset, or simply public markets) frequently won’t let them.

If you’re a founder of a startup, this poses an interesting challenge: are you up to the challenge of creating an open culture in your business? Even when that involves giving up the trappings of power? Even when that involves passing on an investment round from an investor whom you know will force the company to change its ways when it hits a rough patch?

If so, welcome to the club. Follow this blog11, and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned in transforming GrantTree to be an open company. This is still a new field so we can all learn from each other.

  1. In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. See Wikipedia

  2. Less advanced closed cultures are satisfied with stability

  3. Another sign of this is the internal interview: to change your role, you must go through a complex and scary process of interviewing again in the new department.

  4. This of course encourages infantile behaviour. The company then becomes paranoid about trying to keep everyone in line through more controls, which leads to more child-like behaviour, etc.

  5. For example, directors of public corporations usually have a fiduciary duty to shareholders – meaning the focus on profits above all other things is encoded in law.

  6. If not, congratulations!

  7. Part of that is probably due to the fact that open cultures are relatively new and rare, so “best practices” are still evolving

  8. Usually one of the main ways that a hierarchy maintains itself is by gaining control of information. There’s no easier way to create a power differential in a meeting than for one person to say to the other “I know something that you’re not allowed to know.”

  9. There is one reason: fear. But it’s not a good reason.

  10. For some empirical evidence, have a read through Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, which examines a dozen open organisations a number of which are doing exceptionally well in a market of closed competitors

  11. You can also sign up to receive these articles by email, on the right in the footer.