A strong culture isn't about what happens when things go well

Startups and corporates both constantly preach about the importance of culture.

It's something that's supposed to attract and keep the hardest working and most talented folks, and people who lead teams or found companies like to brag about how good their culture is, and how much everyone likes working there.

But good, deeply creative culture has nothing to do with sodas in a fridge, ping pong tables, bonuses, awards, or praising people.

Instead, it's defined and formed by when things go wrong, and in the monotonous day-to-day of repeatedly copy and pasting rows of spreadsheets, tweaking a design element pixel by pixel, modifying a line of code, or re-working back of house flow between servers and cooks.

In the startup world, one of the better known critiques is Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of Airbnb, in a short and to the point piece called Don't Fuck Up The Culture.

While the essay isn't a master document on culture, it contains several solid points - one of them being that in companies or communities where culture is weak, there are usually heavy, precise rules or processes.

Chesky doesn't say it explicitly, but it’s obvious that heavy process often leads to blindspots, particularly when it comes to creativity.

In other words…you can’t protect against everything, and that includes innovation. If you don’t encourage culture to exist and grow within your company, you can expect it to do so outside of your company.  

Here are three things that strong cultures are built on: 


Curiousity protects against weak culture because it enables a system to constantly ask why it is the way it is.

The more curious people you add to your company, the better your culture is. That doesn’t automatically make things easy, but it ensures that if there is a different way of doing something, or an unintended consequence, you’ll be able to get there and understand and address it quickly.


Culture isn’t defined by what happens when people feel good, or when everything is going well. It’s defined by how and where you screw things up.

A strong culture demands ownership, it requires people who do whatever it takes to get shit done, and who are deeply curious about failure…as well as about what it takes to fix things.

Ownership is why you can’t skip the step of offering a deeply felt apology before you fix someone’s problem, whether it’s a simple software design issue or the systemic protection of someone like Bill Cosby by ad execs, club owners, and TV producers. 


There’s no such thing as a big screw up that no one saw coming.

When there’s a massive failure in the culture of an organization, it’s because dozens or hundreds, and often thousands, of smaller pressure points failed first.

Avoiding a fuck up doesn’t require that you be morally correct from the day one. It requires, instead, that you iterate your process individualy and collectively.

When you catch yourself on the small things, and re-work them, you’re setting the stage for what happens when the stakes are higher. Having an iterative mindset, and set of rules, allows you to always be thinking “How can I / we be better?”

*If you find this quick framework useful, you can also access a series of public frameworks for entrepreneurs / startups available in the public Google doc located here.