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Company Culture Is Like A Lava Lamp

Our Founder and CEO Mariel Dommering has a wealth of knowledge and experience with company culture. In a recent LinkedIn article, she shared her thoughts on the difficulties of defining company culture, and how she uses the metaphor of a lava lamp to explain how company culture can drive success. It is an honest and personal read so we wanted to share it as a part of our blog series.

“Our human brain can handle a small group. Everyone knows each other and verbal communication is sufficient. In larger groups, we need the glue of interventions, such as religion, money, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. A large group can also be a source of collective wisdom: think of Wikipedia. Swarms, like starlings, are themselves a collective; each individual moves according to the same principles.” – ARTIS exhibition, 2022.

For six years I worked as Chief People Officer at Nmbrs. Nmbrs is a company that functions without managers, with only a four person board guiding the company strategically. In addition to this no managers structure, Nmbrs operates with as few rules and regulations as possible. 

When running a company without managers and rules, the only way to be successful is to have a very strong and healthy company culture. The Nmbrs culture is a culture built on trust. They trust people to do the right thing and take responsibility for their work and actions. And it works! During my time as CPO, the company grew over 100% in revenue, people and clients. Of course, this made me proud and I was able to live the experiment to the fullest.

Company culture is like the inside of a lava lamp

Like most people I find it very difficult to describe exactly what company culture is. A company’s culture has a complex nature which is not tangible, for some people it’s even vague. Whenever I’ve tried to describe company culture (whether this is on stage, to colleagues, business owners or to my friends) I’ve found that using the metaphor of a lava lamp works best.

What you see inside a lava lamp is a large bulb moving in a certain direction apparently without a plan. Sometimes it’s condensed and barely moving, sometimes it’s long and moving faster. Sometimes tiny bits break loose and go in the opposite direction. This is what happens in your company’s culture as well. 

So using this metaphor, all the people in the organisation are represented by the bulb inside the lava lamp. When it’s condensed, people are in sync and agreeing. When it’s barely moving, there is no ambition within the organisation to make changes. When it’s long, it means people within the organisation are not agreeing. When this long bulb is getting longer, it means some people are up for change and are being held back by the people who think things are moving too fast. That’s how you get a long ribbon, which can even split into two bulbs, which means there is a disconnect within the organisation. When particles are breaking loose it means we have individuals going in a different direction than the rest of the company.

How to influence company culture

Without a doubt, the best way to influence company culture is through hiring (and letting go). You need to hire the right people and also let go of the right people. But who are the right people? I believe two things when it comes to hiring the right people:

  1. People need to be a good fit with your company’s culture
  2. People need to have differences from company culture

When I explain this, I normally draw three figures containing two circles. The green circle represents the values of the person and the purple circle represents the values of the company.

Hiring too diverse is not going to work

hiring too diverse locus quest

In the figure above you see a person whose values have nothing in common with the values of a company. You could argue this is great! Especially now that diversity in the workplace is such a hot topic. However diversity only works when there is also inclusion and inclusion can only come about when trying to find some common ground to share. I found this out the hard way in my first ever HR job. I was hired as an HR manager in a factory. The workforce of about 150 people was 85% male and 85% over 50 years old. The directors of the company (both male and over 50) knew that this was not a sustainable solution if the company was to thrive. They knew they needed more women and younger people.

So they hired me, a 30 year old female and I went on to hire another two, young women, one in procurement and another in the finance department. After eight months all three of us were gone. We all felt lonely and unseen in the workplace. In meetings we were always told to take notes. Little effort was made in the canteen to engage us in conversations, and any suggestions to make changes were answered with, “but that is how we do things here”. My point is, we had nothing in common with the values of the company, and the company wasn’t open to change, so we were destined to fail. Going back to my lava lamp metaphor, myself and these two women would be three very tiny bulbs moving quickly forward, broken off from the main bulb which remains stagnant.

Hiring too in sync is dangerous

hiring too in sync locus quest

Here you see a person whose values are completely in sync with the company’s values. This is in fact the image of a sect, a religious cult, or a company which is not at all innovative. This type of company even has the plausibility of fraud or scandals. Employees are willing to go above and beyond to protect what is there, sometimes with the management looking the other way. These companies are in fact a lot like a sect. People who are not full believers are seen as intruders, outside connections are frowned upon, there can be no change and especially there can be no one challenging the status quo. 

Companies who hire their mirror images (a frequent hiring bias) are less innovative, deal with less push back and feedback on their ideas and are ultimately less successful. If this company was a lava lamp, it would be unplugged. There would be one very big, condensed bulb sitting lifelessly in the lava lamp. Not so exciting to look at, if you ask me.

Hiring overlapping and new values is the way to go

hiring overlapping locus quest

This figure is how I would highly recommend you approach hiring the right people. It’s about looking for people that have the right overlapping values, but also bring some great new values to the company. These new values will be what helps your company’s culture move in the right direction. What you will quickly see in this organisational landscape is that the people will stay together because they feel they are seen and are working together towards a common goal. The culture will move organically in the direction that is favourable for the company because everyone has its interests at heart. New people will challenge the status quo so that the company grows, changes and has room for innovation. And how does this lava lamp look? The bulb will be in one unified piece, slowly and calmly moving forward.

Go with the flow, handle it with care, and where possible, keep the company together in one bulb.

Hiring and letting go of people are not the only ways to change the culture of an organisation. There are ways to influence the pace and the direction the bulb (your staff) is moving, but you will have to do it with care, so that the bulb stays in one piece and no pieces will stay behind or break off. You want everyone to stay together and keep moving in the right direction. In the lava lamp metaphor I see this is like using two spatulas, one on either side of the bulb, to gently steer the bulb in a certain direction, or maybe adjust the motor of the lamp to go a bit faster or slower. When you take a spatula and full-on slam the bulb to make things change, you will see that the bulb scatters in 100 small bulbs, which take a long time to come together again. All this time the organisation is in a full stop, not innovating, not growing, not a fun place to be.

I have tried to write down some clear examples of gentle interventions and interventions where the spatulas were used to slam at the bulb of my professional life and the impact I have seen on the organisation. Obviously I do not recommend you copy this exactly. You will have to feel the flow of your organisation, your bulb and ride along with that.

Keep talking and explaining

One of the things I loved to do during my time at Nmbrs is to explain why we were doing things the way we were doing them. We always had a lot of live company wide meetings before Covid and during Covid we had an online end of week meeting. In these meetings I explained a lot of things from the core, and gave the reasoning behind why decisions were made. How we saw salary growth, what our review process was, how and why we made transfers between squads, how we saw growth within Nmbrs, how we did recruitment … you name it, I shared it all. In the six years I was there I did a lot of those speeches two or even three times, always with the possibility for questions and room for debate. This is a very gentle way to steer culture, just keep feeding the organisation with information.

Two reorgs at Nmbrs

At Nmbrs I was a part of two big reorgs. In both of them we heavily involved our staff in the new lay out. 

The first reorg we (Employee Experience, Coaches, Scrum Masters and Board) let it go after the new squads were formed. The idea was that they were happy with the new layout and they would find their way. What actually happened is that the pace slowed down tremendously and it took us about a year to get back to the old pace again. There were a lot of misunderstandings of tasks and purpose for each of the squads. There was this bulb lying lifelessly at the bottom of the lava lamp for too long. We saw it, but we were leaning towards autonomy and we had a feeling that the squads needed to get through this difficult phase themselves, but in hindsight we should have given them more guidance. Our culture was dead for a while and it took some time to get it moving again.

In the second reorg we provided a lot of help in getting the squads started again. If they were a lava lamp, this would be like setting the motor of the lamp from level 1 up to 3. The squads began moving in the right direction. The first week after the reorg we organised an introduction week for the squads to get to know each other (coming up with names for their squad, mission statements, purposes). The scrummasters were far better organised as a chapter than in the first reorg. Just after the reorg they had multiple check ins with a very good agile coach. The coaches were heavily involved, keeping an eye on team dynamics and organised a team dynamics day for each team after a month. The energetic culture we had, continued to be there. Introduction week gave some nice sparks, laughs and new stories and alliances were born. There were distinct people (scrum masters and coaches) very much responsible to keep the culture alive.

Major layoffs at Acision

Major interventions are much more difficult, although sometimes necessary. In 2008 I started working at Acision who were selling texting machines to Telcos. In 2008 we had to suddenly deal with a new reality with the introduction of the iPhone and WhatsApp. We had to let go of 150 people which had a huge impact on the company. Sometimes it’s just not possible to handle interventions with care and patience. My advice in this difficult situation is to be honest, be vulnerable and be approachable during the intervention. Do your best to pick up the pieces afterwards. These interventions will leave a company damaged and scattered, but if you stay connected with the organisation during the intervention, it will be easier to influence the particles to come together again and start moving again. 

In conclusion

Company culture is the most powerful tool there is to steer a company. While it is a broad and sometimes daunting subject, I really hope that by sharing this lava lamp metaphor I have been able to give you a bit more insight into what a company culture is, how it changes and develops, and how you can influence it to ensure that your company grows and develops towards success.