As a business owner, you may have heard about minimum viable products, but what is minimum viable culture? “Minimum viable product” is a term that’s often batted about in the startup world. It refers to the smallest number of features a product needs to attract initial customers and secure feedback that can enhance the product’s subsequent development. Over time, the term has been simplified even further to “the smallest thing you can build that lets you quickly make it around the build/measure/learn loop.” Recently, some business leaders have borrowed the concept of “minimum viable” to relate it to culture. Applying minimum viable culture to your company — startup or otherwise — could lead to improved alignment between the value proposition, company values, and purpose.
What Is Company Culture?
In recent years, slightly less than half of business startups didn’t make it to the five-year point. In fact, 20% won’t even make it out of their first year. Businesses fail for many reasons — running out of money, product cost issues, being outcompeted, lack of a market for the product, or poor marketing. Few reports about startup failure mention poor business culture, but many of the failings that tank a company relate to culture — or the lack of a viable one.
According to Forbes, company culture encompasses its “vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, beliefs, and habits.” However, check with other sources and you’ll find company culture described with terms like “atmosphere,” “anchor,” “rallying point,” “company galaxy,” “glue,” and “DNA.” In short, company culture as applied to individual businesses means something slightly different from one company to the next. But are there critical components of culture that a company needs to succeed?
You’ve Got the Product, but Do You Have the Culture?
“Minimum viable culture” refers to the set of shared values and purpose needed to deliver the company’s value proposition to customers. Although it’s a term that’s most often applied to young companies, it’s veteran companies may want to revisit it, especially if their brand has gone off track and is no longer meeting its business goals. Another way to understand minimum viable culture is to ask yourself this: what aspects of your culture are critical for being in business? These critical aspects — you could call them values — form the foundation of the company’s culture, and that foundation informs how the company does business.
Startups don’t always articulate their culture. They’re naturally consumed with their products or services and everything it takes to bring them to market. But failing to articulate culture means that a business might not have a minimum viable culture; it might be missing critical values and actions that support critical values that are necessary for success. Focusing on culture early can give businesses an edge over companies that don’t get around to defining their culture for years. Companies thought to be operating in a way that’s true to their culture might find, upon revisiting their critical values, that they’ve become misaligned.
Achieving Minimum Viable Culture
To define your minimum viable culture, ask yourself a few questions like these:
- Why does your company do what it does?
- What does your company believe?
- Where do you want your company to go?
Ultimately, your company’s beliefs become its values, and where you want it to go becomes its vision. There are other critical questions to ask, too:
- What value do you deliver or hope to deliver to customers?
- Do your company values support your value proposition to customers?
- What behaviors are you performing to display your values?
- Do employees share the same values as company founders?
- Do you have stories that help define or demonstrate your company’s values?
- What are the driving forces behind your values? What motivates your company?
Each of these questions can help you articulate your company’s minimum viable culture. Answering them is a thoughtful exercise, and depending on the size of your company, it might take some time and research (using metrics) to provide the meaningful answers you need to define your culture or change your culture.
The fact is that you company has a culture; it just might not be one that’s particularly effective for you or your customers. By evaluating the components that make up a minimum viable culture, you can learn whether your culture is aligned with your customers’ needs, the value proposition you provide to your customers, and your own company values. Being strategic about defining your culture helps you recognize when it’s misaligned. If you look at culture as a vehicle for carrying your values and vision to success, then fixing those alignment issues will ultimately make for a smoother ride.