Closing the cultural divide in today's start-ups

Technology start-ups often have difficulty integrating employees with diverse backgrounds to create a common vision and language for doing business. They assemble teams on the basis of talent and know-how, then pray that the combination will work. There often is no time to consider how ideas are developed, the style of communication, the system of rewards -- in other words, the company culture.

Traditionally, start-ups create a culture as they go along. But for dot-coms pursuing niche markets, there is no time for such improvisation. To be effective, the diverse attitudes and practices within the company must converge, almost overnight.

In today's start-ups staffed by twenty- and thirty-somethings, virtually no one onboard has experienced many company cultures in depth and repeatedly adapted to new ones. Young, highly successful people with short resumes find it hard to mix backgrounds so quickly. When it comes to decision making, they often point out, "Here's how we did things at Apple . . . Xenotron made decisions this way . . . at Intel this process would be unacceptable," and so on. Given time, they may thrash out ways of making decisions -- but time is what most start-ups do not have in abundance.

In addition, e-commerce companies must forge unusual combinations of talent. For example, a healthcare Web venture may include people with backgrounds in computer technology, entertainment, publishing and medical science. When it comes to deciding on screen designs, the technology people will cite formulas, the artists will rely on intuition, and the scientists will propose a trial-and-error method. With no common approach to ideas, they will argue too long and achieve too little.

Cultural divides are common in high tech -- for proof, just watch software developers and marketing people develop a product plan. In today's start-ups, schisms appear unexpectedly and must be resolved quickly. For example, a twenty-something chief financial officer from a prestigious business school may be aghast at the lack of bottom-line awareness in a Web start-up, where concerns such as revenue temporarily take a back seat.

Traditional cultural differences (language and ethnicity) also challenge young, fast-track companies. Small e-commerce firms may boast people from 20 countries -- a situation ripe for misunderstanding. Typically, problems involve communication style. For example, a computer scientist from New Delhi may hold a meeting to discuss flaws in his Taiwanese colleague's system design. Based on his culture, the Indian will believe his remarks are honest and open, while from his cultural perspective the Taiwanese has lost face and will resign. Again, small high-tech firms racing the clock must quickly address such discord.

Even without clashes, a company may be undermined by its own, CEO-driven culture. For example, youthful players in dot-coms tend to act "pseudo-decisively." Their attention, and everyone else's, focuses on minute-to-minute events rather than long-range implications. So they frequently decide something, consider the ramifications, then reverse the decision. Even good decisions arise in the wrong way. In a free-for-all environment, decisions favor he who shouts the loudest. Typiically, no one bothers to "sell" decisions internally and build consensus.

Start-ups rarely seek training to bolster skills such as decision making. But they will listen to advisers who listen to them -- and play to their strengths. For example, in Silicon Valley many young professionals respond to instructional examples based on sports. In cross-country bicycling, who decides if the team will enter competitions, and what are the trade-offs? Should one person make decisions about safety? Which decisions can, and cannot, be reversed on the road? And so on.

Young companies need someone from the outside who can observe them without bias, noting their strengths and weaknesses, getting in sync with their habits, then presenting ideas in a way that will work for them. The CEO drives the budding company culture, but a mentor can keep tabs on how emerging practices are succeeding.

Above all, an outside mentor -- such as a retired CEO or consultant -- can establish the practice of mentoring as a continuing in-house institution. As the start-up phase winds down and the company culture stabilizes, a network of internal mentors can preserve gains in knowledge, morale and communication.

This story, "Closing the cultural divide in today's start-ups" was originally published by Network World.

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