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"Drinking the Kool-Aid™" How We Create Value Alignment

Over my four year tenure at Pivotal Labs I’ve heard it a lot: “You guys really drink the Kool-Aid around here, don’t you?” and I’d shake it off with a joke, “Yeah, you can grab anything from the fridge you want, so long as it’s powder-based fruit punch.” I thought I knew what they were getting at, we’re pretty rigorous about things that are radically different from the way most software developers work – TDD, pair programing, and a common start time to name a few. But it takes more than common practices to build a culture that is so strong that it consistently elicits cult analogies.

First off, I’m not excited to be called a cult member – the term is derogatory and carries a lot of baggage with it. But if we look at this definition from Wikipedia, the word cult is a  “term for a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre by the larger society.” While we’re not “religious”, I would say we’re a “movement” to change the way software is made, and our practices intentionally push the boundaries of what most organizations are comfortable with. But what makes a cult is beyond practices.

I said I thought I knew what people were getting at, but I didn’t fully understand it until recently when I was sitting down with a candidate who was on the edge about accepting a job offer at Pivotal. She had been trough our usual rounds of interviews and had some really good questions. I did my best to answer them honestly. At the end she thanked me and offered, “If nothing else you’re all very consistent.” I indicated I wanted to know more and she shared that she had also talked to pivots at meetups and even overheard a couple of us on the train and apparently we “… all say the same things about [our] company.” She had to leave, so we said our goodbyes, but what she had said moments before was still washing over me.

How is it that we’re so consistent? Even when we think no one is listening we say the same things that we say when trying to attract new talent. For my specific situation, I wasn’t glossing over any of the parts of our company that are feeling growing pains; I felt confident that reality was not only good enough to stand on it’s own, but that it was the right thing to say. I wanted her to make an informed decision about coming to work with us – one of the hardest things to do is work with someone who doesn’t want to be there. I imagine school teachers feel this way a lot of the time, compared to other classroom settings where students opt-in.

Okay, being open is a pretty good thing, but it doesn’t fully explain how I was giving the same message that the rest of my coworkers were giving. Each person has a unique perspective on life, and there certainly isn’t someone coming over the speakers every morning telling us what to think. Upon reflection, I think the reason we have a common appreciation for our work place is because we pair program and rotate through projects. While I’m sharing my technical skills when at the keyboard, I’m also learning about what’s going on in the company, on the team, and with the individual between keyboarding times (see future post “Why Slow Tests Aren’t Always a Bad Thing”). Face-time, and pairing specifically, homogenates a workforce.

This constant sharing of ideas and perspectives quickly creates a value alignment without anyone ever having to say what those values are. We even pair when interviewing so we’re selecting for those values from day zero. And since we have this strong alignment, it’s easier to identify pivots as a group, or a “cult” if you must, rather than as individuals who works for a faceless brand. If you want your company values to be represented at all levels, you have to talk about and challenge those values every day so that there is shared understanding, and pairing is a great way to do just that.

As it turns out, that interview candidate accepted the job the day after we spoke. I also checked the fridge, and though it is well stocked with a variety of beverages including fancy tea, Kombucha, over thirty kinds of beer, and a plethora of juices, Kool-Aid is no where to be found. We understand why we’re at our job better than anyone else in the business, plus we can message those values even when we think no one is listening, and that’s a powerful thing to find in the workplace.

  1. Chad Woolley says:

    Good one. Looking forward to the future post on slow suites ;) I’ve thought that myself.

  2. Noah says:

    Every time i hear “Drinking the Kool-Aid”, I think back to the most awkward vendor-prospect moment I’ve ever been part of. It was probably late 1999 and the height of the B2B boom, I was working at Oracle. We were doing a high-level pitch at Kraft Foods and I was one member of the “Oracle bus” that day. Btw, Oracle bus is a term that describes Oracle bringing at least 6 people to any meeting.

    The regional VP, Ken, was in midst of his presentation to 8 Kraft employees including an SVP. Ken was explaining how the Internet was transforming businesses, including the case study of how Oracle itself was using its own product to save millions. While the normal term was “eating your own dog food”, Ken decided to switch it up and say “We drink our own Kool-Aid”. As he continued on for 30 seconds, the mood in the room changed dramatically. Most Kraft employees started to look down. The SVP broke in and told Ken that he had said something very offensive. Ken was totally puzzled and apologized by saying “I’m sorry…but I’m not sure what I said.” The SVP then told him that making a reference to a massacre of 900+ people was inappropriate and linking it to a Kraft product was not only factually incorrect but also offensive to the employees of Kraft Foods. So, while a fruit punch had been the vehicle for the poison, it was not Kraft brand Kool-Aid.

    Needless to say, Kraft stuck with SAP at the time. Overall a good lesson in knowing your audience.

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