The Culture Pyramid

“Mom, do I have to?”

“Mr. Zuckerberg, what exactly is Facebook?”

“Team, can we get all of this done today?”

Take a moment and put yourself in the seat of the person asking the question, and the person being asked the question. Concentrate on the feeling.

Now, find this in / add this to your mental toolbox (credit to Ben Thompson of Stratechery for first putting it in mine):

Picture a pyramid that is stacked with:

Choice (on top)

Culture (in the middle)

Nature (as the base)

The feeling you get when you think through those questions is the result of your assessment of an applicable pyramid. How?

Imagine the relationships in those questions: mom / kid, CEO / senators, leader / team. Imagine a pyramid for each.

When we are trying to understand someone’s choice (or questions), it’s a mistake to just jump to their nature. It’s also a mistake to look at someone’s nature (or natural environment) and just infer choices on top of it. For everything, we always have to pass through culture. By examining culture, we gain a frame of reference to better understand the nature that it emerged from, and the choices that exist because of it. Culture also informs what people are likely to do next time.

As the questions suggest, one you understand the tool, you can zoom in or out to find yet another pyramid. There’s a big picture / macro view, a small picture / micro view, along with everything in between. There’s culture in your family, and between siblings. There’s culture across a 200 person company, a 20 person division, and a 2 person team.

Culture is what scales. Nature and choice exist, but culture is how we actually understand them – both to ourselves and collectively.

Mark Zuckerberg, at some point in his life, asked the leadoff question of his own mother.  Different members of the Senate have different reference points with Facebook. Different members of your team have different ideas about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Those cultures influenced the inevitable “next times.”

Every choice feeds back into culture and compounds it. The act of compounding is what makes culture so hard to build, sustain, and change. That’s why you have to pay careful attention to how culture evolves. That’s why tracking sentiment can be as important as tracking data.

Never forget this Silicon Valley sentiment: “culture eats strategy.” Whether you are building it, attempting to sustain it, or attempting to change it, you had better be paying attention to the whole pyramid.

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