“A community is like a campfire, and a crowd is like a concert” says Thomas Knoll, Executive Advisor and Business Coach.

At a campfire, people either arrive knowing each other or make friends throughout the night. Each person can share the spotlight, and everyone faces one central point: the fire.

At a concert, on the other hand, people aren’t facing each other, generally speaking. It’s too loud to talk. They likely don’t know anyone except for the friends they arrived with. They’re facing the front, absorbing information rather than contributing. They’re the audience, not the artists.

“One isn’t necessarily better than the other,” Knoll says. “But if you want to bring people together, you probably want to host a campfire, not a concert.”

Knoll and I were talking about community management, but I think this wisdom applies beautifully to culture-building in organizations, too. When the C-suite spreads culture from the top down, it’s like employees are at a concert that they may or may not have bought tickets to. Some are listening, and others tune out or head to another stage.

At a campfire, on the other hand, each person has an equal opportunity to listen and be heard, to engage, make friends, and toss a log on the flame. Each person is bought-in and present.

That’s what co-creation is about: it’s about making employees feel like they’re co-authoring an experience shared by many, not tuning in to the spectacle of a few.

But things get challenging when attendance at the bonfire goes from 10 people to 20, from 20 to 50, and so on. Soon, not everyone can feel the warmth of the flame, and the people on the edge wonder what they’re even doing there.

Eventually, that bonfire can start to feel like a crowd.

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Companies like Quartz, Zappos, and Airbnb, have figured out how to make sure that every single attendee (read: employee) can feel the warmth of the flame — AKA the set of shared values and sense of purpose — for years to come.

They have successfully scaled their cultures by maintaining a sense of community and co-creation. Despite exponential growth, it is possible to make sure each new employee contributes to the culture in meaningful ways, and the set of values are shared by all. Let’s explore how.

The following is an excerpt from our latest ebook, The Practical Guide to Scaling Company Culture.

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, says: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.” The operative word here? Shared. It’s not “Brian’s way of doing something with passion,” — it’s the collective approach that the whole company gets behind.

A culture is only a culture if the whole team actively and intentionally contributes to it. Otherwise, it’s just words on a wall.

Having a shared, co-created culture can make scaling much, much easier. That’s because the culture is actually representative of the team, rather than a superimposed set of values that no one actually subscribes to.

Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion. Brian Chesky

In this article in the New York Times, Hsieh discusses why culture is so important to him, and why he approaches leadership at Zappos in such a unique way.

Tony Hsieh, Chief Executive at Zappos
Tony Hsieh, Chief Executive at Zappos

“After college, a roommate and I started a company called LinkExchange in 1996, and it grew to about 100 or so people, and then we ended up selling the company to Microsoft in 1998. From the outside, it looked like it was a great acquisition, $265 million, but most people don’t know the real reason why we ended up selling the company,” Hsieh said.

“It was because the company culture just went completely downhill.”

“When it was starting out, when it was just 5 or 10 of us, it was like your typical dot-com. We were all really excited, working around the clock, sleeping under our desks, had no idea what day of the week it was. But we didn’t know any better and didn’t pay attention to company culture.

“By the time we got to 100 people, even though we hired people with the right skill sets and experiences, I just dreaded getting out of bed in the morning and was hitting that snooze button over and over again.”

Here’s the thing: where Hsieh’s company went wrong was not in the quality of or demand for its products, nor in the skills of its team. No, it was that they did not know how to scale their culture successfully.

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So when he joined Zappos a year later, he knew he wanted to do things differently. He wanted to focus on the culture of the company. He wanted to grow with intention, not just for growth’s sake, and create an environment that didn’t make him want to hit the snooze button.

Now, Zappos has faced its fair share of controversy, mostly because it implemented Holacracy as its prevailing organizational structure. Still, it seems their employer brand is as strong as — or stronger than — their brand as a shoe retailer.

When Tony Hsieh was creating Zappos’ official culture, he spent an entire year going back and forth with everyone on the team so that the entire company felt bought into the values. As a result, Hsieh and the leadership team truly feel confident hiring and firing based on culture.

Some companies bring in a culture consultant to help them define their culture, while others take a more DIY approach based on books and articles they’ve read. If you want to take this exercise in house, we recommend first starting with the your values and your why, then working outward to things like policy, perks, and office design. Colourful sticky notes are highly encouraged!

There are two main steps to co-creation. The first is a session with the leadership to talk about your culture, and the second is to take these learnings to the team for feedback, ideas, and buy-in.

Step One: Meeting With Leadership

Order lunch, pick up some bubbly, book your favorite meeting room, and get comfortable. This could take a while. To co-create your culture, you’re going to sit down with your founders, senior leadership, and/or people operations team, and have a frank discussion about your company and your culture.

It can be helpful to assign fluid roles to the attendees, like:

  • Notetaker
  • Question Master
  • Devil’s Advocate

These roles help ensure discussion keeps moving and that different people are contributing input. Part way through the meeting, try switching roles to keep things interesting. Most importantly, make sure you give yourselves enough time to truly dive deep. This is a process that cannot be rushed. Ask yourselves things like:

  • What problems are we looking to solve? How will growth help us to solve them?
  • In two/five/ten years, what will our team look like?
  • If we were to describe the growth of our company as a story, what would be the plot? What is the setting? Who are the heroes? What is the conflict? How is it resolved?
  • In 100 years, what will our company be remembered for most? What gets us out of bed in the morning and excited to come to work? Has this changed over time?
  • If our company dissolved tomorrow, what elements would we miss the most?
  • If our company was a person, what would our personality be like?
  • If our company was a city, what city would we be? Why?
  • What traits do we want all new hires to embody?
  • When a new hire starts, how do we describe our culture to them?
  • What do we want our employees to be saying about us?
  • How would we handle a crisis? How much would we share with the team?

Your notetaker should be writing down this session in detail. You could even keep an audio recording. And remember, this is just step one. There are no wrong answers, and all the work you do as a team here will help guide the next steps.

If you don’t already have core values, this is the time to set those. If you do have core values, it’s time to revisit them and ensure they’re the right values to take you through the next few years of growth and change.

Step Two: Taking It To The Team

Now that your leadership team has had the chance to think deeply about your culture, it’s time to take these learnings to the rest of the company. To do this, you can share one large culture document with everyone, you can create a survey, you can hold an company-wide meeting, or you can do some combination of these.

If you’re at a small company, you could send the same questions your leadership team answered to the rest of the team and see how well the answers align. Regardless, what you want to get from your employees is an understanding of:

  1. How they feel about your culture today
  2. Their expectations for your culture as you grow

“It’s really different when HR, or the CEO, or someone in a higher up role, says, ‘Here are our values’, without input from the employee population. What we came up with felt like something we collectively built rather than, oh, this is just a new HR thing,” said Christa Foley, “Lead Link” at Zappos Insight, in our interview with her.

When it comes to co-creating culture, one of the hardest parts is getting everyone to buy in with earnesty. Some members of your team may be resistant to spending so much time on such a nebulous concept as “culture.”

Because let’s face it: when it comes to scaling, we have this illusion that the more people we hire and add to the team, the easier things will get. In Scaling Up, Verne Harnish describes this as, “The growth paradox: the belief that as you scale the company — and increase your dream team, prospects, and resources — things should get easier, but they don’t. Things actually get harder and more complicated.”

This is why it’s important to invest this time and energy up front.

Co-Creating Culture at Quartz

Quartz is a digital global business news publication owned by the publisher of The Atlantic and National Journal. They recently published an article on how they navigated the tricky waters of scaling beyond 150 employees, and how some pretty strange things can happen when you reach that magic number.

The Quartz Team (Photo by Quartz/Mia Mabanta)
The Quartz Team (Photo by Quartz/Mia Mabanta)

“At a startup, once the staff exceeds 150 people, employees are no longer the single, cohesive, culture-reinforcing unit they were during the company’s earliest days. Staffers become more specialized and entrenched with their teams, which are probably sprawled across an office, perhaps on multiple floors or in several locations,” writes Kevin J. Delaney, Quartz’s Editor in Chief.

“This is familiar to us here at Quartz, the four-year-old media startup that I cofounded. Within the past 12 months, our employee count rose above 150. With that growth, the organization has changed in ways that we didn’t anticipate.”

Quartz cites “Dunbar’s Number” (the theory that humans can only really maintain personalized relationships with 150 people) as one of the potential reasons why 150 was such a pivotal number for them. How did Quartz handle it?

“We spent time talking about our values and goals with staff, wrote down a company history to share with all new employees, and started scheduling more regular all-hands staff meetings to discuss the business. Our mission—to ‘be a guide to the new global economy’—helps define Quartz in terms of how we serve readers. Ultimately, this should be a bigger, more powerful influence on our culture than the sense of tribe we cultivated early on as a staff.”

In other words, Quartz is taking the time to co-create their culture, and the co-creation doesn’t stop once the core values are established. They help foster a sense of authority and buy-in with new hires by sharing the company story with them, and they understand that the goal is to grow that culture beyond what the early team-members decided.

Co-creation doesn’t stop with the founding team. It carries on with each new hire, because everyone contributes to culture in their own, unique way.

Co-creation is just the beginning

You’re now well on your way to creating a culture that lasts, expands with your growing company, and makes an impact on the world. But co-creation is just one of many steps to scaling your culture.

How will you communicate with the rest of the team? When and how do you perform check-ins? How do you foster a culture of celebration?

Answer these questions, learn how to grow with intention, and read tips and stories from companies who’ve successfully scaled their cultures in our latest ebook, The Practical Guide to Scaling Company Culture

Special thanks to Bianca Bartz for contributing to this post, and to The Practical Guide to Scaling Company Culture.