All startups and large companies now rightly understand the importance of organisation culture. But, many founders believe company culture is innate and grows organically. Others are busy with focusing on scaling a startup and ignore the need to ‘water’’ the culture plant and start paying attention only when ‘wrong’ culture starts impeding growth or leads to loss of talent. There is a different approach that is possible and necessary—a proactive and a scientific approach, through which startups can identify and quantify dominant characteristics of their culture, arrive at desired culture parameters that are closely linked with the founder’s DNA and company’s objectives and key results (OKRs) and implement them. While this exercise can be done at any stage, it is easiest to implement when the company is transitioning from being a young startup to a more scaled, more complex growth-stage venture. In this third post in my ‘First Principles’ series, I focus on the carefully thought out approach by agritech startup AgroStar towards identifying and implementing its preferred organisational culture.
This case study is my attempt to offer startup founders a deeper insight into how such an exercise can be implemented in their organisations and to highlight how closely linked culture and business strategy are.
(Read the first and second posts in the First Principles series)
Founded by brothers Shardul Sheth and Sitanshu Sheth in 2013, AgroStar is today one of the leading agritech startups in India. Backed by Accel, Pune-based AgroStar has a very clear mission at its heart—’Helping farmers win’. It does this by solving two main problems of farmers. One, helping them move from traditional farming to progressive farming through its farm solutions, and two, providing them easy access to good quality agri inputs, by delivering them to their doorstep.
AgroStar supports over a million farmers in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The company grew from under 200 employees to over 1,000 in just four years.
AgroStar, right from its founding, gave importance to organisational culture. For instance, it had five clearly stated values in 2014 that were instilled into the initial team. However, as the company scaled rapidly, grew to multiple geographies with distributed teams, the founders realised that the essence of the company’s culture was not uniform across the organisation.
Shardul told me that after the company’s Series A and B fund raises, AgroStar had stepped up hiring and in some time he and Sitanshu realised that some of the new hires especially in the leadership team, while great individuals and good at their jobs, did not connect with the values of the company.
“That was a wake up call, especially when we realised that we were the ones who had hired them” recalls Shardul.
Further, with a larger more complex organisation structure the founders felt it was time for Culture 2.0—a clearer, more defined definition of what AgroStar’s culture and values are. As Sitanshu explained to me, when the team was small it was easier for the founders to communicate the organisation’s values to the team members directly, by modeling the behaviour. This was not the case when the team grew manifold. Also, for operational roles, AgroStar typically hires people from other agri-related companies that are traditional and more hierarchy driven. That’s not the case at AgroStar. So, they knew they would have to help the team members unlearn the way of working they are used to and learn the new and desired style of working.
“From our past learnings, where we have otherwise typically done a lot of things rather quickly, on the fly and iterated along the way, this (Culture 2.0 exercise) was one thing that we knew we could not afford to get wrong. We knew it had to be thorough and somebody needs to own it and drive it besides us,” explains Sitanshu.
To this end Asha Panicker, who has been with the company since its early days and had a pulse on the company culture, was tasked with the responsibility of leading this initiative in July of 2019.
Asha in turn reached out to me with a request for support to come up with a scientific method.
Asha’s main concern was that much of what we hear and know of organisational culture seems to be in the ‘grey area’. She, however, wanted the exercise of defining AgroStar’s culture to be driven in a scientific and not an emotion-based manner. I also mentored her throughout the Culture 2.0 process and was happy to guide her, offer suggestions and offer a second opinion.
The first step in redefining culture is to understand what the prevailing organisational culture is. But, how to do this scientifically and efficiently? I have been a firm believer of the OCAI methodology and, so, introduced Asha to this concept. OCAI stands for Organisational Culture Assessment Instrument. The concept of OCAI revolves around a survey conducted among the employees. The survey helps place the existing culture in one or more of four heads—people-driven, innovation-driven, market-driven or hierarchy-driven. Plus, the survey helps the organisation understand what culture the employees prefer or want. The method is a scoring system based one, and so there are no ambiguities about the results.
For the survey, Asha ensured that she chose a cross section of employees, picking vintage and new, senior and junior, male and female, and across various verticals, from the on-ground agri team to tech.
The results of the survey were quite clear. AgroStar’s employees defined the company culture as people-driven, closely followed by innovation-driven. When it came to preferred culture, the employees wanted the company to be innovation-driven, followed by people-driven! This was a win for AgroStar as the gap between preferred culture and prevailing culture was small. Also, an agri-tech company needs to be innovative and people focused and so the survey’s outcome worked out as a positive reinforcement.
This analysis was not just done at the company level but also at the function level. The finance function’s innate culture could be very different from that of the tech department. The culture preference of employees across departments could also vary. It was a fruitful exercise for Asha to analyse the data by function.
This process is useful for many reasons. But to me the most important reason is the ability to back decisions with data. There are organisations where there are say four founders and each pulls in a different direction when it comes to the type of organisational culture. If this exercise was not done in this scenario there is no reference point for the founders to reach a decision. The OCAI survey offers a chance at a consensus.
However, Asha did not just rely on the survey and its data conclusions. She had one-on-one interactions with a variety of AgroStar’s employees to add context and bolster the data. This was particularly important for an organisation like AgroStar that has a distributed team and has a large fulfilment team in centres like Gujarat, Rajasthan and MP that are geographically far removed from the Pune headquarters.
One of the issues with remote teams is that the culture can get diluted and a sense of disconnect creeps in over time. So, getting the perspective of remote teams was significant. These interactions also helped Asha understand the kind of effort that will be needed when Culture 2.0 was eventually rolled out to ensure remote teams are also on the same page as those in the ‘mothership’ in the Pune office.
The Tech, Product and Data Team
Now that Asha had data and insights, she needed to use all this information to help define Culture 2.0. She presented all the findings to founders Shardul and Sitanshu and to the company’s Head of People Practices, Priyanjali Kharbas. The four would be key to clearly define and flesh out what the culture of AgroStar would be in the future.
The data was organised under the four OCAI heads. However, hierarchy-driven was not a goal for AgroStar, as right from the start the company was focused on not being constrained by rigid hierarchy. While it was clear from the employee feedback that innovation orientation and people orientation were the primary requirements, the founders wanted to ensure that market orientation was also given due importance along with maintaining the dynamism of the startup mindset even as AgroStar continued to grow.
One of the reasons the founders and others felt the defining values of Culture 1.0 had become redundant was because they were mainly simple words—speed, humility, trust, think big and wow service. Only think big and wow service had a bias towards action. The founders wanted this to change.
The main task was to identify the guiding values or principles that the company would follow. But, how many values to have? While the founders Shardul and Sitanshu are brothers, they are very different personalities, something the duo were cognizant of right from the start and one of the reasons why the scientific approach was seen as a necessity!
“Our natural strengths are very different. Whether it is zero-to-one or speed-over-perfection, that naturally comes to me and his strengths are completely opposite,” Sitanshu tells me.
They wanted to ensure that both these widely different personalities and the attendant strengths were reflected in the values.
Shardul adds, “We have understood that as the company grows both sets of strengths are needed.”
These different styles came into play even when finalising the values of Culture 2.0, with Shardul wanting easy-to-be-captured values that could easily be put up on a wall, while Sitanshu did not want to put limits on the number of values or words.
For reference, the team looked at examples like Zappos and Amazon. From a people orientation perspective, Linkedin’s Chairman Jeff Weiner’s principle of compassionate leadership was an inspiration. The team realised that they could not capture all they wanted to achieve with just five values. Sitanshu was able to convince the others that there is no need to limit themselves.The book 'Delivering Happiness' by Tony Hsieh, who was until August 2020 the CEO of Zappos, inspired the team not to enforce a stringent limit to the number of cultural principles. It also proved to be a valuable guiding light on how to go about driving culture through living the values. Interestingly, for the rollout of Culture 2.0, all AgroStar leaders had to read this book to understand the relevance and importance of culture.
The team agreed that the guiding principles needed to be actionable. The reason behind this is that an action helps people understand the thought behind that principle better. The second point was each value needed an explanation. However, it is not feasible to include long, descriptive text alongside each value everywhere it is mentioned. So it was decided that a simple, concise tagline will accompany each value.
This was needed because when looking at implementing Culture 2.0, the target audience is not just the teams based out of the company headquarters, like technology, product, marketing, and finance, but also the team members from distributed capabilities like fulfilment centres, last mile delivery, and field teams. Everyone needed to get the same message.
After multiple iterations, the culture team finalised on the 13 values that would form the foundation of AgroStar’s Culture 2.0.
Why am I placing such great an emphasis on organisational culture? Time and again we have seen that a company’s culture can play an enabling role in aligning employees towards a consensus style of working, thus removing ambiguities and strengthening their resolve to achieve shared goals. Culture doesn’t stand apart from an organisation’s strategy. On the contrary, organisational culture directly facilitates the fulfillment of company strategy. At its core and its simplest, the 13 values that AgroStar zeroed in on are meant to help employees fulfil the company’s mission of ‘Helping Farmers Win’. This finds a place in AgroStar’s mission statement—that you can’t work in silos at AgroStar.
So every principle or value had to tie into this core requirement. Plus rooting each value in the reality of day-to-day operations is also important, as employees will adopt the principles only if they see it not only work in real life but also see it work well from a business outcome perspective. For instance, one of the 13 principles is to ‘Move Fast - with a constant sense of urgency’. In real life everything may not move fast all the time but the idea with this principle is that it is important to display a sense of urgency in everything that gets done.
Another value is ‘Innovate Continuously’, with a tagline ‘to make everything better’. To show how serious AgroStar is about this, there is an internal email id meant just for employees to send their innovative ideas to and company leaders are tasked with evaluating the viability of the ideas for a pilot.
Yet another principle is ‘Follow 80-20 - to constantly prioritize’. Based on pareto analysis, the idea is you might not be able to fix 100% of a problem at one go, so focus on the 20% that is the priority, can have the largest impact, and that will ensure that things are working until the employee can get to the less pressing issues. This eases the burden of employees.
While the 13 values are aimed at aligning the organisational culture for employees, it was clear to the founders and to Asha that at the heart of this exercise is AgroStar’s end customer—the farmers. The company’s mission statement is ‘Helping Farmers Win’. So each principle is linked to this mission statement; each value is meant to enable the employees fulfil this mission.
While the 13 principles were ready in February of 2020 and as the roll out plan was being set into motion, Covid-19 struck and the AgroStar team like everyone else in the country was stuck at home. However, while the schedule had to be changed, Asha and Priyanjali utilised the first two months of lockdown to upgrade the existing people practices to align them to the values of Culture 2.0.
Asha now has a multi-pronged rollout strategy keeping in mind the changed scenario. At one level, the people practices processes like interview process, rewards and recognition programme, and review process are getting upgraded to consider the Culture 2.0 parameters as well.
For the dissemination of Culture 2.0 to all employees, Asha has started the rollout of Culture 2.0 by roping in the function heads and is executing it by team.
It is important to note that while creating the specifics and the framework for the desired organisation culture is an exercise with a target deadline, the implementation is a slower and continuous process to a large extent. However, Shardul and Sitanshu say they have started seeing results already. The intent with defining organisational culture in minute detail was to ensure employees at all levels have a framework or best practices to enable faster decision making and problem solving. Shardul and Sitanshu are seeing this happen. This is a great sign.
“I see a greater sense of purpose. There is belief among the team that their work is more meaningful and that comes from less conflict in meetings, work getting done faster, and people being more appreciative and faster in their responses,” says Shardul.
What the AgroStar culture redefining exercise showed clearly is that fast growing organisations with a relatively large employee base can effectively build and execute a scientific approach to design their organisational culture. However, this isn’t easy and I have seen many companies not being able to execute such a task fully. Buy-in and belief in the process from the founders, leaders and employees is necessary for the success of designing, imbibing and embodying desired company culture. As seen at AgroStar, focusing on culture is a highly relevant exercise as integrating business strategy or vision with culture creates the perfect conditions for an organisation to succeed.