“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — Peter Drucker’s famous quote summarizes well how important a strong culture is for any company’s success. Particularly tech startups have gone to great lengths in consciously shaping their culture and even exposing their cultural principles publicly (as in the example of Hubspot).
But one crucial element of culture is often overlooked because it’s very subtle: People’s preferred way of communicating can influence a culture heavily. Even more importantly, it can lead to inefficiencies and conflicts that don’t seem to make much sense and come out of the blue. But they are easily explained and can be managed if you pay attention to communication modes.
In his seminal essay “ Managing Oneself “ Peter Drucker pointed out the difference between “readers” and “listeners”: Readers prefer to consume information in written, very structured form and think best while writing. Listeners prefer oral communication and “talking it out” to understand a problem. When you match the two types without them understanding the difference, results can be problematic. Drucker mentions the examples of US presidents Eisenhower and Johnson who ended up being ineffective because they didn’t even know their own communication style.
I found a similar concept in this recent interview with Marc Andreessen (warning: it’s a bit… unusual):
“Media theorist Walter Ong articulated the profound differences between Textual (Literate) and Oral cultures. Textual cultures are abstract, analytical, mathematical, clinical, universalist. Oral cultures are grounded, intuitive, emotional, interpersonal, group oriented.”
( Side note: Ong was a student of Marshall McLuhan who later was inspired by Ong’s ideas to write the very comprehensive book “The Gutenberg Galaxy” on this topic. Highly recommended, but not an easy read.)
Are textual or oral cultures more successful?
You can see elements of these different types of cultures in any company. Company cultures are not one or the other, they are located on a spectrum, and few are on extreme sides. You could argue that a small business like a restaurant or hair salon is probably run almost exclusively on oral principles. On the other end, fully remote tech companies are probably mostly textual.
It’s also wrong to think of textual as more “modern” and sophisticated. Both approaches can work, depending on context and consistency.
Looking at the most successful tech companies illustrates this point: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos famously banned PowerPoint from his meetings and requires attendees to provide written multi-page narratives in advance. That’s the hallmark of highly textual culture. Similarly, Microsoft has a culture of long memos to explain ideas and advance decisions.
On the other hand, Apple has a much more oral culture according to insider accounts. It focuses on open-ended meetings in small groups to create ideas and make decisions. Interestingly, you can even see this preference in Apple’s internal email style, visible in some emails that have been disclosed around lawsuits. The emails tend to be brief, use short paragraphs and treat one idea per email. Other companies’ emails look very, very different.
Are startups more oral?
Is the type of culture a function of company size and development stage? You could probably suspect that a small startup with a team of 10 people in a room would naturally have a more oral culture than a bigger company.
Not necessarily. In my job as a VC at btov Partners, I get to work with very talented startup teams, and their communication cultures are really unique, falling on very different spots on the spectrum between textual and oral. You experience small teams where barely a word is spoken throughout the day, everybody hacking away on their code. And there are others that are very vocal and interactive. Both approaches can work.
Where does this communication style come from in a very young company? Typically it’s a function of founders’ preferences. More orally oriented founders tend to hire similar people, and employees often perform best in cultures that match their own style.
Lost in translation between departments
In a growing company, different departments are going to develop their own subcultures. That’s almost unavoidable. Frequently it’s a function of the respective professions. Engineering departments tend to be much more textual than sales departments or customer success, for example. That’s hardly a surprise. But the culture is often strongly influenced by department leaders.
Where things get tricky is when departments (and their leaders) have very different styles and struggle to collaborate effectively. Effective decision making in management teams for instance is a frequent victim of these disconnects. When intuitive orally minded leaders with a “let’s just try it!” attitude face very analytical thinkers with a textual preference for abstract concepts, clashes are almost unavoidable. One side will hate all the overthinking, while the other will be bothered that people showed up for the meeting yet again without reading all the brilliant strategy memos.
The trick in these situations is to make people aware of their differences in style and create methods to accommodate different preferences. For instance, orally-minded people hate reading much in advance, while textually-minded ones can’t stand long meetings with endless deliberations. But both have to recognize that these things might be necessary to work effectively as a team and that they have to meet the other side in the middle. Coming prepared to a meeting speeds things up very considerably. And leaving plenty of room for discussion often produces the best ideas.
How does remote work change this?
As a result of the COVID pandemic we all went through a forced experiment in remote working. Results have been mixed. Most companies report that their productivity has remained stable, but a large percentage feels that culture has suffered.
In my observation, companies with a more oral culture have struggled a lot more culturally in the pandemic. That’s hardly a surprise. Of course some of the typical elements of an oral culture — spontaneous brainstormings, quick check-ins, social get-togethers — are much harder to pull off over Zoom and Slack.
It’s probably fair to say that remote working shifts the balance towards a more textual environment. Remote-only companies such as Gitlab are very public about the importance of documenting everything in writing, for example. That’s something you won’t find emphasized in a company with a primarily oral culture.
Of course this shift requires new management methods and tools. Young startups like Remi are focusing on exactly these challenges, building tools that enable distributed companies to keep team coherence high. This can for instance work by mimicking online some of the things that might occur naturally in an in-person setting, such as telling people about things that are happening in your life or thanking somebody for their great work.
Why do VCs talk so much?
Finally, an observation about my own industry, venture capital. VC has a very strongly oral culture. That’s not necessarily a given, since most VCs are highly analytical people.
The VC industry shows a lot of the hallmarks of a traditional oral culture: The primary mode of communication is verbal, from pitch calls to partner meetings to board meetings. There are simple, almost proverb-like rules that support decision making (“This company’s LTV-to-CAC ration is less than 3, so it can’t be a good business”), hero worship (“Is this founder the next Mark Zuckerberg?”) and a very strong emphasis on intuitive decisions, aided by interpersonal proof points. For example, recommendations from a trusted angel investor count for much more in VC decision making than any formal analysis.
For first-time founders, raising VC can sometimes feel like understanding the bizarre rituals of a primitive tribe — including certain taboos that everybody seems to know but nobody ever formalizes.
Why is it like this? Shouldn’t such a capital-heavy industry with so many supposedly smart people be much more structured? And will it always be like this?
That’s a big discussion in the VC industry right now. There are funds that experiment with AI for decision making, and it doesn’t get much more textual and analytical than AI. There are also marketplace-like approaches that try to level the playing field and increase transparency. But so far, results seem to be less than convincing, or at least have not revolutionized the field.
So why is VC culture so oral? The main reason is the scarcity of truly structured information. When you make investment decisions about early-stage startups, there is much more that is not known than is known, and that’s by definition. 95% of the things that decide whether a seed-stage startup will become a huge success lie in the future and can’t be known, so VCs have to go on the very little known facts that are currently available. Approaches like pattern matching, social proof, status signalling (“This founder was funded by Sequoia before, so she must be great”) and understanding nuances in founder team dynamics through direct interaction fill in the blanks to hopefully get to a better decision. Unless we find a way to formalize much more information about startups (and their founders), there is likely not going to be a change to this culture.
What to do about it
The preferred mode of communication — on an individual, team and company level — has essential impact on how a company works and in which circumstances it can be successful. It’s therefore essential for leaders to pay attention to this aspect. In my own career as an entrepreneur and investor I have seen disconnects in this aspect cause more problems and conflicts than almost anything else.
Three main tips:
- Understand what communication type (reader/textual or listener/oral) you are yourself. Most people are not either or, but definitely have a preference.
- Understand the same about your colleagues and make them aware of it. Tools like the “Manual of Me” can help with this.
- Accommodate the different preferences in your management methods, depending on how your team performs best. Have meetings, but not too many. Produce written documentation, but stay comprehensive. Most of all: Use multi-channel communication. Any important piece of information should be shared in both verbal and written form to make sure it reaches everybody on their terms.