Cult-ures based on cults
Creating cults and cult-ures definitely works withn a certain degree of freedom, but it isn’t done using some mantras and a brand book. It is something that requires some good ol’ exploits of psychology and a keen eye in hiring if someone brings both the right driver DNA to supplement the tribe and teams and the susceptibility to the kind of group think the founder bears in mind. In any case, cult-driven cultures are founder driven cultures. All cults have but one god leader. His ability to absorb the truth from his followers and his ability to deflect the fact that the truth is obtained from and fed back to them makes the entire exercise a bit slow, shabby and inefficient. But it works magic if the goal of the company is to exalt the brand leader, put loyalty to the leader to the maximum and exploit this kind of environment to create a larger than life ego which can be used for PR stints. I think this is how Steve Jobs worked. But I never cared enough about Steve to really find out. I think this is definitely how some founders I met thought and think Steve Jobs worked.
An alternative model is that of the Greek democracy. And yes, I talk the real thing. The one where slaves, women and children and dogs had nothing to say. The kind of dual-layer flat hierarchy of fighting, plotting and warring men that try to influence without authority within a small realm of democratic platforms. And then they push it down the the slaves. To the women. And so forth. That kind of democracy. And having a strong, highly cohesive and secretive but internally democratic management team that pushes down its agenda to an equally flat and resiliant operational tribe below is quite an efficient way to approach the subject in the beginning of a start-up.
And of course, there is a third way. The one where a dictator or a group of dictators, or “visionaries” write rules into stone. The approach of having a “culture book”. A clear book with do’s and don’ts. So the dictators are in essence legilsators operating on the system below them using laws. In order to enforce these laws, a system of monitoring and policing behaviour must be created. This can be done via delegates using a top down approach to emulate a governmental structure or it can be done by having whistleblowers, snitches and rats all over the place like in Soviet era Easter Germany. In any case, a system to call any defying behaviour to attention is necessary. And then, of course, a system of court and juriprudence must be established. A system that punishes under the law all those proven guilty under it. And a system that does this in a just and repeatable manner. Everyone is treated equal. And the rules are enforced. This can be very subtle as in more cultic structures where people are smiled at less, rumours are started, people are being ignored, become “outsiders” or it can be more transparent and rational with a clear sentence that has to be served and a clear moment when all guilt is being freed again and one returns to normal state.
Some more thoughts
The important thing here is that cultures regulate how people interact. And they try to solve a lot of things. In some part output and productivity. Also flexibility and creativitiy. The ability to perpetually challenge ones own assumptions or keep ones eyes and ears close to the market and streets. Some also are excellent for supporting massive scaling efforts and absorbing new inmates. Cultural design must fit the purpose and there is not one culture that works for all companies in all contexts all the time in all functions over all geographies. At the same time, companies build cultural brands that they try to emulate globally and use as a key driver in their talent acquisition and retention efforts. But again, this is more of an art when thinking about architecturing. The real effort and skill is in understanding how groups, social circles, networks and systems form within organizations that start to set own agendas and own cultures. And how to remain in control. Something a good HR department should be able to understand and operate on.