How I Built a Great Team Culture using First Principles (No Gimmicks)

How I Built a Great Team Culture using First Principles (No Gimmicks)

Do you want to build a team culture that you can be proud of?

If yes, you are in the right place. 

My system will help you build the team culture you aspire for.

Team culture means two things:

First, the way in which the team faces challenges together.

Second, what does the team aspire for, where it wants to be in the future.

That is, culture = team capabilities + team aspirations.

The right culture leads to high performance, productivity and profits (longitudinal studies prove the relation).

Not to mention, great culture is also great fun, and encourages people to stay longer with the org.

3 years ago, I started building Hexmos, and immediately was faced with the enormous problem of culture.

When I started building Hexmos, one thing was clear to me.

I needed a very particular type of team.

I wanted a group of responsible, committed, forward-looking, self-initiating, rugged and tough leaders

I wanted them to care equally about principles, people, technical and market factors.

I wanted a team that’ll never get fazed, no matter

  • How big the challenge is
  • How long it may take
  • How many new initiatives it may require
  • How deteriorated the environment is

I wanted to build an ever-marching, ever-awake, and ever-focused team.

A team that will never say never, regardless of adversity or external conditions.

And most importantly, I wanted these leaders to create other leaders.

If that isn’t a tall ask, I don’t know what is.

When the above qualities are itemised, very few people fit the bill.

After about 3 years of rigorous efforts and experimentation, I am happy to say, I am grateful to work with such a team.

I am proud of the direction, intensity, consistency and commitment of my team.

Although we are small and just getting started, I can already feel the enthusiasm and power of the people I’m working with every single day.

Without any doubts, I am proud of my team.

Anyway, this post is not about me or my team.

Based on my learnings, I will help you build a team culture you can be proud of.

You may need to build a totally different type of team.

But the process I share with you here, will be mostly applicable regardless.

Will that be of value to you? Yes? 

Alright, onto the process then.

An Analogy from Religion

Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to give you a useful conceptual map.

Building enduring cultures are best learnt from religion.

Conquerors may destroy temples and churches.

But the core beliefs and ways of life endures in the hearts, minds and practices of people.

And these beliefs and practices will get the same temples and churches rebuilt.

Strong cultures are beyond physical and material conditions.

They can take a beating, and still bounce back after years or decades.

Culture is the software that runs across individuals and time.

Culture makes great things possible for human groups.

Architecture of Culture

From religious cultures, we can find the secret to powerful human organization:

  • Unified purpose
  • Decentralised execution

The unified purpose of all Christian individuals is to live a life compatible with Christian Teachings.

The unified purpose of all Hindu individuals is to live a life compatible with Dharmic Teachings.

The unified purpose of all Buddhist Individuals is to live a life compatible with Buddhist Teachings. 

You will see two components to the above statements:

  1. Teachings: Sources of wisdom, ideas, principles, realities, perspectives. Usually these come from books, historical figures, and specific situations and principles of relevance.
  2. Live a life: Living is execution. It is about putting the teachings into practice, to make life happen in alignment with the teachings.

Ultimately, in summary, Culture in the religious sphere is about:

  • Authorised sources of knowledge and wisdom
  • Guidelines on how to live life
  • Guidelines on how to regulate daily conduct
  • Proper means of collaboration with others
  • Means of dispute resolution
  • Recognition of authorities
  • Legitimate processes to acquire authority in the community
  • Strong commitment to maintain and propagate the existing system
  • Values practised on a day-to-day basis

Within each religious banner, there is often a place for a good amount of diversity in execution.

The Leader’s Task

It doesn’t matter whether you are building a tech team or marketing or sales team. 

If you want your efforts to endure, you must build a strong culture.

It is the leader’s job to provide the initial push to formulate the right culture.

A proper culture may take years of fighting to establish.

How does a leader establish the desired culture?

The task of the leader is two-fold:

Define clearly - reliable sources of teachings, philosophy and principles

  1. Who are the greatest inspirations for your work?
  2. What works in history are most respected and reliable, with respect to your work?
  3. What is most relevant to your context and people?
  4. What are the central principles, philosophies and values from these works?

Implement a system to put the teachings into practice

  1. Encourage everyone to implement the right principles, values and philosophies day-to-day 
  2. Continuously monitor the impact of implementation
  3. Take feedback, improve the framework from practical experience
  4. Emphasise the most relevant aspects of teachings 
  5. Provide lots of individual autonomy and authority in getting things done within the framework
    1. This is important. Only the vision must be unified. People are tremendously motivated by the power to operate on their own. There must be big room for individual execution.

The Example from Hexmos

I will walk you through how I built a corpus of teachings and continuous inspiration for my team.

Also I will share a bit about the practical systems built to get the teachings implemented.

The Framework: Define a Canon of Books and Authorities

I started by recognizing that the team will need constant inspiration.

There is nothing better than thoughts from relevant and great men from history to do that.

I have been an avid reader all my life.

So, I already knew where to start.

From day 1, I consistently mentioned my great inspirations in detail.

I also constantly encouraged everyone in my team to read their works.

Also, we copiously shared quotes and ideas within our public chats.

In particular, when there were critical & difficult decisions to be made…

…I always invoked my favourite authorities and how they conducted themselves.

This way, I connected lessons of human history to our day to day conduct.

A key thing to note is, I strongly emphasise the original words of solid proven leaders.

From my experience, the original words and phrases of great individuals, as they are, have the highest value.

Third-party reportings of the greats tend to be subpar (although it is nice to get extra context or information if we have the time or inclination).

Here is a list of people and their works, which makes constant appearance within my team (representative, not exhaustive list):

Lee Kuan Yew

Founding Prime Minister of Singapore. He took Singapore from 3rd world to 1st world within a generation. By reading Lee, my team learned about convictions, long-term orientation, discipline, clear communication and the importance of action-orientation. I’ve got almost everyone on my team introduced to the following works (and many other ancillary works):

  1. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew
  2. From Third Word to First: The Singapore Story
  3. Keep it Clear, Keep it Simple (Writing Advice for Ministers)

Admiral Rickover

Genius engineer, and engineering manager, who built the first nuclear powered submarine. If there was only one book to build up serious leadership capability, I’d recommend Admiral’s works. Unparalleled and unique wisdom.

  1. The Never-Ending Challenge of Engineering
  2. Doing a Job - Management Philosophy of Adm. Rickover
  3. The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made A Difference (biography)

Taiichi Ohno

Brilliant Japanese Engineer and Manager, who evolved the Toyota Production System in about 30 years. His principles for improvement (“kaizen”), are a stuff of the legend. We love using many of his principles at Hexmos, improving stuff.

  1. Taiichi Ohnos Workplace Management

M Visvesvaraya

Indian Engineer and the minister of Mysore. Transformed the whole state in a matter of a decade through rigorous studies, perfect reasoning, and unceasing efforts.

  1. Reconstructing India
  2. Memoirs of My Working Life

We have many more works that are part of the official canon of books within our group. 

We use these day to day as part of proceeding with our work. 

I recommend, for your context, find out who those 10 authorities are, and what their best works are, and get your team to digest the core ideas.

Execution: Leader Must Take Personal Responsibility and Make Policies

There is a good amount of reliable evidence (think longitudinal studies), that say that:

  • Majority of online course takers never finish.
  • In corporate training, very few actually apply what they’ve learnt.

Getting people to learn, and also getting people to apply are both tough problems.

The first step to successful execution is getting people to learn.

Reading Policy

At Hexmos, we have a mandatory 15 minutes reading policy.

We have an old forum where everyone posts a few quotes from their 15 minute reading of the day.

We also motivate ourselves with quotes from great people about the benefits of daily reading.

You too can sign your team up to 365 Reasons, to get daily reading motivation (it is FREE).

And people tend to compensate for missed days, so that there is a consistency.

Keeping the streak going is addictive and confidence-giving.

Also, within Hexmos everyone gets unlimited FREE uploads for our own FeedZap.

With FeedZap my team members can read wherever they are, at any time they want.

Personal Responsibility

While reading is helpful in creating context, to implement the lessons consistently more work is needed.

For this, the leader taking personal responsibility is critical.

At Hexmos, I personally refer to these works, whenever there is a relevance.

Someone shows up late? I narrate some story from Rickover, encouraging them to learn what high standards look like.

Someone is afraid to take on an initiative? I discuss how LKY had to work for various people for free in the first 5 years of his law practice.

And so on. 

Also, making individual recommendations to read something and apply it, when they hit a problem is helpful.

Contextual reading helps

I myself use reading to help myself out of mental ruts sometimes.

Inspiration is a universal requirement, we all need it, constantly.

Monitoring, Feedback, and Refinement

We rarely get any learning initiative right the first time around.

Our programming and design courses have gone through dozens of iterations.

Our reading, reflection, writing programs too have gone through many iterations.

Set some metrics which are simple to measure.

I've found through experience that simple daily metrics work great.

We are big on consistency at Hexmos.

Anything truly worth doing is, worth doing consistently.

Once consistency is establish, go meta, and try to enhance the intensity, quality, and relevance of new initiatives.

It is important to evolve an initiative rather than overthink things.

Informal but committed approach worked great for us.

What you can do

In summary, by building a culture that you’re proud of, you get many benefits:

  1. Stronger problem solving
  2. Better sense of belonging
  3. More long-term outlooks
  4. Superior cooperation
  5. Better performance and productivity
  6. Better profits

To build a good culture, follow this two step process:

Step 1: Unified Purpose:

  1. Identify sources of inspiration
  2. Absorb Principles, Philosophies & Values
  3. Define a canon of books to build awareness.

Step 2: Decentralised Execution:

  1. Leaders must take personal responsibility
  2. Implement simple to follow policies to put teachings into action
  3. Monitor progress
  4. Take feedback
  5. Refine the program

In short, with a unified purpose and decentralised execution, your team will be on the path to developing a rock solid culture.

With a great culture, your performance, productivity and profits will improve over time.