Today's Reading

So how do you design and shape these nearly invisible behaviors? I asked that of Shaka Senghor, who ran a powerful gang in the Michigan prison system in the 1990s and 2000s. Senghor knew that the lives of his guys depended on the gang's culture. He told me, "It's complex. Say someone steals one of your guys' toothbrushes, what do you do?"

I said, "That seems innocent enough. Maybe the thief just wanted clean teeth?"

He corrected me: "A guy doesn't take that risk for clean teeth. It's a diagnostic. If we don't respond, then he knows he can rob your guy of something larger or rape him or kill him and take over his business. So if I do nothing, I put all our members at risk. Killing the guy would be a big deterrent—but it would also create a superviolent culture." He spread his hands. "As I said, it's complex."

Identifying the culture you want is hard: you have to figure out not only where your company is trying to go, but the road it should take to get there. For many startups, a culture of frugality is vital, so it makes sense to require that employees stay at the Red Roof Inn. But if Google is paying a salesperson $500,000 a year and it wants to retain her, it will probably prefer that she sleep well at the Four Seasons before her big meeting with Procter & Gamble.

Likewise, long days are standard in the startup world—you're in a race against time. But at Slack, CEO Stewart Butterfield is convinced that if you actually work hard when you are at work, you can efficiently get a lot done. He punches out early and encourages his employees to do the same.

The culture that works for Apple would never work for Amazon. At Apple, generating the most brilliant designs in the world is paramount. To reinforce that message, it spent $5 billion on its sleek new headquarters. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos famously said, "Your fat margins are my opportunity." To reinforce that message, he made the company be frugal in everything, down to his employees' ten-dollar desks. Both cultures work. Apple designs dramatically more beautiful products than Amazon, while Amazon's products are dramatically cheaper than Apple's.

Culture is not like a mission statement; you can't just set it up and have it last forever. There's a saying in the military that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you've set a new standard. This is also true of culture—if you see something off-culture and ignore it, you've created a new culture. Meanwhile, as business conditions shift and your strategy evolves, you have to keep changing your culture accordingly. The target is always moving.


Culture Is the Strong Force

In business, if you have a strong culture but a product nobody wants, you fail. So culture might appear to be weaker than product. But if you look more deeply, over time, culture can overcome the seemingly invincible structural barriers of an era and transform the behavior of entire industries and social systems. From this broader perspective, culture is the strong force in the universe.

In the 1970s, a bunch of poor kids from the Bronx created a new art form, hip-hop. In a single generation they overcame poverty, racism, and massive opposition from the music industry to build the world's most popular musical genre. They changed global culture by inventing a culture premised on candor and a hustler's mentality.

The hustler's mentality could be seen in how hip-hop DJs sourced their basic building block: breakbeats. Breakbeats were the part of the song that everyone got excited about on the dance floor—the beat-heavy breakdown sections that featured drums and bass, or just drums. The freshest breakbeats, the ones people hadn't heard before, were often found on obscure records. Because these records were obscure, the record companies wouldn't restock them if they suddenly sold out, which created a supply-chain problem. Hip-hop's entrepreneurial culture worked right around it. Ralph McDaniels, who put the first rap videos on television and who coined the term "shout-out," told me:

A guy named Lenny Roberts supplied these records to the stores and he knew precisely what was going to sell, because he was from the Bronx and that's where it was all breaking. He marketed these breakbeats by giving them to Afrika Bambaataa or Grandmaster Flash, and when Flash played it every DJ would go, "Oh, I've got to have that record," and the records would instantly sell out. So Lenny pressed his own records with just the breakbeats: the Breakbeats Volume One, Breakbeats Volume Two, etc. He didn't have the rights, of course, but nobody was paying any attention.
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