Bespoke Culture: Tailoring Your Organization

Leaders nowadays are suffering from a lot of FOMO and a constant urge to keep up with the Joneses, if you will. You see what others are doing and feel like you’re supposed to be doing the same or feel bad about not doing so. Inundated with Twitter threads, Medium posts, conference talks, or books that tout specific trends, frameworks, or approaches, many executives I advise feel that they are not doing well enough just because they haven’t implemented all the “right” practices.

The catch is that we fail to realize that leadership is not like a math test. There’s no one “right way.” You cannot copy what your friend is doing and know that you’ll reach the same end result. When I am brought into organizations and see young startups trying to implement practices they saw at Google, Facebook, or Netflix as-is, it can look comical. Kind of like the teenager wearing his dad’s too-big blazer: it just doesn’t fit.

(Quick note: I’m using a menswear analogy because that’s what I’m familiar with, but I hope it won’t deter those of you that wear anything else.)

Similarly, copying-and-pasting processes and habits from whatever trend-of-the-week you came across is like that one person at a party that looks like a walking commercial for some big-name brands. You know the type, with the dinner plate-sized Gucci belt buckle or the LV initials all over their attire. Are you doing the same with your organization?

Off-The-Rack Culture

The problem with most off-the-rack options is that when you reach for whatever is currently topping Hacker News, you are not likely to get a perfect fit. Google’s DevOps processes are overly complicated for virtually all other companies in the world. What your competitors are doing when it comes to their technology choices can be precisely the wrong choice for your team, comprising different people with different backgrounds and, hopefully, different company values and vision.

Just as with code, you can have several plausible ways of doing something. You should muster the confidence of shaping your organization to your needs and strengths. That might mean learning from several sources (off-the-rack) and then putting some alterations in place in order to make things have a better fit and not feel like a foreign object. For example, most new change initiatives are better introduced in phases where you take the time to tweak and tune things as you go along.

That also means that you should come to terms with the fact that you will not try out every hot topic that you have heard of, especially not immediately. And that’s completely fine. If it makes you feel any better, as someone that regularly talks with hundreds of tech executives a year, I can attest that most people are not as “trendy” as they are trying to make themselves appear.

Bespoke Organizations

Lastly, I think there is strength and confidence in taking full responsibility and freedom in shaping your organization, culture, and strategy. Bespoke here refers to the concept of getting a piece of clothing or shoes explicitly tailored for you. You take part in its design, material selection, and so forth. However, no one starts with getting their entire wardrobe done bespoke. Take it one step at a time.

Bespoke here doesn’t mean that you should feel free to reinvent the wheel and innovate in every aspect of your organization. I often tell my clients that the last places that warrant innovation are organizational structure or task management. I believe your innovative and creative efforts will be better spent in areas of high leverage, like product experiments and roadmap creation.

Nevertheless, that is not to say that you shouldn’t be putting in place unique approaches that are an amalgamation of different ideas that you see and want to experiment with. Along with your entire management team and colleagues in the executive team, speak up your mind and find the areas with the most leverage. You can create a fantastic team if you stop trying to pretend to be someone you’re not.

Some examples to get your wheels spinning:

  • Your tech stack should match your company’s talent and needs. Bleeding edge tech makes sense only on certain occasions (see here for more on that).
  • Trying to create OKRs out of thin air when the CEO is not on board and the company lacks a unified vision is nontrivial. Doing so requires a tailored approach, if at all possible (more on measuring and guiding your team in my new workshop).
  • Career ladders are often problematic when merely copied from some other company’s blog post. You have to take into account what seniority really means for your team. Each company tends to have different gaps of experience and leadership, and the ladders should help overcome those gaps.
  • Your management onboarding and training is likely to suffer if you pick some off-the-shelf offering for full days of “training” that you saw someone else doing. Instead, it is often better to start with the results in mind and work backward. Consider which takeaways you’d like them to have and find the right expert to develop the best medium to achieve that (more on crafting your management team in The Tech Executive Operating System).

You look your best when you’re strutting around in clothes that fit you well and that you’re comfortable in!