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Changing Culture


I haven't thought much about culture before joining a large tech company. Culture has always remained synonymous with folklore – "Moroccan Folklore", that is. And given my internal definition of folklore being correlated with Fantasia... my definition of culture somewhat also stopped there. Accidentally also turns out that tech companies are a great microcosm to understand culture at large.

Fantasia Horsemen

"four horsemen in a fantasia festival taking place in Morocco, in a large space space with a mountain and falls backdrop" – OpenAI

Part I

On day1 of my Google orientation class, I was handed out a "Noogler hat". You might have seen them in the movie The Internship, or out in the wild. It felt different, weird. The next "different and weird" feeling was when I heard about "TGIF", where both Larry and Sergei tune in every Friday to answer everyone's questions – also where I had to show up wearing the hat. The "Thank God" part in TGIF was because of the happy hour, but also because it was over fast. Future "different and weird" Culture Building Blocks (CBBs) ended up creating and becoming the Culture that Google was setting for a new joiner. Culture wasn't the Fantasia show alone, but everything that went along with it, including the people that cheered for it.


"tech worker wearing a yellow green blue red hat, and flying with its propellers" – OpenAI

"tech worker wearing a yellow green blue red hat, and flying with its propellers" – OpenAI

Facebook's CBB (in 2016) was "speed and scrappiness". It was felt across the board – from the recruiter going above and beyond to make complex travel arrangements happen, to the ceiling-less lobby when I first walked in. Everything screamed motion and no time to waste on whatever is not adding up to the mission's bottom line ("make the world more open and connected" in 2016, and then "bringing the world closer together") – such as building a ceiling.

Company Lobby

"tech company lobby with incomplete ceiling exposed wires and plumbing, desk with agent sitting in front of a computer, and an employee badging in, realistic" – OpenAI.

Part II

Adopting a company culture is commonly referred to as drinking the Kool-Aid (I had no idea what this was before moving to the US – a powdery drink mix that comes in funky and EXTREMELY natural colors). The analogy helps even more if the company's dominant color is the one Kool-Aid man is known for sporting.

Company Lobby

"blue kool-aid man sporting a tech company logo hoodie, realistic" – OpenAI

Drinking the Kool-Aid however takes time, and it's not a one time occurrence. Each Culture Building Block/CBB needs to be repeated (in form, frequency, and layer) in order to be internalized within the wider company culture. So there's a direct correlation between Kool-Aid drinking amount, time between sips, and how many people around are also drinking the same variety of Kool-Aid.

But what happens when new joiners decide your Berry Blue Kool-Aid sucks and their Orange-flavored one is better?

As companies grow, their culture starts to shift (duh but important to note). It becomes a remix of the original culture and whatever culture the new joiners bring along in their spinning hats and Kool-Aid packs. This remix is weighted unevenly, and influenced by the people's resistance to changing the culture they're bringing (push) and how dominant and influential the existing culture is (pull).

Nations preserve their cultural heritage through a mix of law and foreign policy, immigration, folklore, and by creating citizens that carry those ideals forward (ambassadors). The equivalent for companies is its behaviors towards its employees and the external world, hiring practices, Kool-Aidy slogans and design language, and rewarding culture carriers.

But unlike companies, Nations don't grow as fast – and the ones that do end up suffering from the same growth pains high-growth companies deal with.

A company in rapid expansion therefore can't guarantee its culture to be maintained – unless it's done with intent.

Part III

So what happens when a company's leader decides to change its culture from A to B, realizing the new culture that have emerged isn't the right one for the future? The leader would effectively bring a new culture B and force a top-down change. This top-down change is immediate, and forces everyone to reset ... or does it?

Company Lobby

"an emperor on a horse on top of a mountain, alone, ordering thousands of soldiers standing at the bottom of the valley to march forward" – OpenAI

"Somewhat like a neural network in the brain, culture emerges from the interaction between the environment -the formal mechanisms- and individual behaviors -the interpersonal mechanisms. Because of that, little can be done to change the culture of the organization directly by fiat, and CEOs that make the attempt usually lose their jobs." – Roger L. Martin / A New Way To Think

History (through Roger Martin's quote) disagrees, and says the CEOs trying to force a top-down change end up losing their jobs. Culture emerges from "pockets of interaction" between people and (environment + other people), changing it without disrupting the system can only be done through a similarly infectious mechanism, traveling through the existing culture while correcting the different Culture Building Blocks without erasing them. That is to say, a virus needs time to spread, but it needs to be a virus first to spread.


A strong-enough culture eventually starts to behave like a religion. Changing a company culture is therefore a religious conversion question, and that's likely why it can never happen by fiat.

"Religion as it is understood in the modern world did not exist in the Graeco-Roman world. Roman religion in the early Roman Empire was polytheistic and local, with rituals varying between localities. Most religious practice was embedded in, and inseparable from, the city. Ritual was the main form that worship took. Politics and religion were intertwined and many public rituals were performed by public officials. Respect for ancestral custom was a large part of polytheistic belief and practice, and members of the local society were expected to take part in public rituals."

"Christianization of the Roman Empire began around AD 30–40, slowly and amidst opposition, in the Roman province of Judaea in the region of Palestine [...] Christianity is generally thought to have begun with fewer than 1000 people. Growing at an estimated average rate of approximately 3.4 percent per year, compounded annually, it reached approximately 200,000 people by the end of the second century, half of the empire's population by 350, and eventually encompassed the majority of its 60–70 million people in the fifth – or possibly the sixth – century." – Wikipedia