If you walked into Koru’s Seattle office, you’d likely see the team pasting brightly-colored sticky notes on the wall.
“We stand up and do sticky note brainstorms on a whim,” Co-founder Kristen Hamilton explained.
“When there’s a problem, everyone comes in and brainstorms ideas.”
The notes are then categorized into an affinity map where it’s impossible to recognize if a sticky belongs to a recent hire, sales executive, or vice president.
The session ends with a team clap and Koru chant.
The idea generating technique, derived from the design thinking methodology pioneered at Stanford, emphasizes Koru’s focus on grit.
At Koru, “grit is measured by the team’s ability to walk through a brick wall together, not alone.”
The value establishes that asking a colleague for help is an act of perseverance, rather than a sign of personal inadequacy.
As CEO, Kristen’s highest goal is to foster an “intentional culture” at the three-year-old startup.
“Intentional culture implies being clear about your principles. Who you are and what you believe in is the foundation of your company. It’s not your product.”
Kristen often states that “startups are a buffet of problems.” The only way to solve them is to try as many options as you can to determine which are best.
The metaphor lends to the team’s grounding belief in the value of experiential learning.
“If you think about how we learn how to walk as children, we learn by failing. You stumble. You trip. You lose your balance. If we were afraid to fail, we would never walk.”
If we were afraid to fail, we’d never learn.
Especially for teams solving complex challenges, “failing fast and cheap” should be recognized and celebrated as a unit of progress.
“When you avoid failure and hide from sharing your mistakes – or making them in the first place – you end up reducing performance, slowing your productivity, and creating a culture of fear, instead of learning.”
“It’s painful, uncomfortable, and anxiety-inducing for new team members,” Kristen affirms.
Koru institutes a simple ritual to de-risk failure. After anyone on the team makes a mistake, from an intern to the senior leadership team, he or she takes a failure bow, shares what they learned, and moves on.
According to Kristen, “the demonstration of the failure bow is a simple way to say ‘We encourage you to fail as quickly as possible.’”
In a mission-driven culture, failure is best represented as another sampling at the buffet. When your team’s goal is to find which food is best, you’ll try them all. In the same way, that you don’t attach your identity to the foods you choose, your worth in the company isn’t defined by an unsuccessful experiment.
We learn by doing. You can’t do anything perfectly the first time.
As your team members explore new projects encourage them to follow the 51% rule: You only have to be 51% sure to pursue an idea.
“People become paralyzed when they think they need to make a good decision or the right decision. Often times, the stakes aren’t as high as you think. The worst thing you can do is be indecisive.”
Specifically for new and young team members, it’s common for lack of experience to inhibit them from openly sharing their thoughts.
Reassure them by advising them “not to compare their insides to someone else’s outsides.”
As soon as you compare yourself, you lose.
This is where a practice like sticky note brainstorming can be utilized to democratize your team meetings, reduce the pressure, and promote collective ownership of the outcome.
Kristen references the mentality fueling the Seattle Seahawks as an example of the culture they’re working to foster at Koru: “When times are tough for that team they don’t change their tune. They say: ‘The outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but we are a team, and we made that choice. No one is going to point fingers at each other.’”
As your team navigates new challenges, it’s important to exercise “radical authenticity when you don’t know the answer as a leader.”
“It comes down to being vulnerable, emotionally intelligent, and self-aware.”
Whether it’s sharing a new idea or presenting the results of a pilot experiment, feedback is a critical element of rapid and thoughtful execution.
At Koru, the team believes that “feedback is a gift” that can and should be imparted daily.
Feedback in the moment increases performance.
“Sometimes we think it’s kind not to be direct because it’s easier…However, when you’re coming from a place of caring, and you’re clear and direct it will 100% be appreciated.”
Establish it as a founding belief in your company “that your team members are your best advocates. They know you well and can provide you with feedback for your blindspots.”
Kristen shares three simple tips to simplify the process for the donor and receiver:
- Ask for permission. It’s as simple as saying: “Can I give you some feedback?” “It gives the other person the chance to invite the feedback,” prepare for a candid conversation, and not feel blindsided. If for whatever reason it’s not a good time they can choose to defer for another occasion.
- “Name the deepest truth.” Coming from a space that is in the best interest of the receiver drastically influences how feedback is received and whether it’s deemed helpful. If your feedback isn’t related to an individual’s efforts achieving team goals, it’s wise to reevaluate.
- Always be humane. “All of your decisions, even challenging ones like firing someone you care about it, can be done in a humane and caring way,” Kristen affirms.
Kristen provides a personal example of a team member pointing out that she didn’t address an individual’s perspective in a company meeting.
“It was just a miss for me. I was so grateful and immediately thanked her for the opportunity to course correct.”
“The innovation that happens in startups is all about learning. You have to celebrate and focus on the learning and then act on it…Feedback needs to come across and streamline the entire organization…When someone is bold enough to do that you really take note.”
Cultivating the courage to share ideas with the team and imparting honest feedback are habits that manifest “in day to day activities more than principles written down on a piece of a paper.”
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to maintain a well-rounded perspective of the state of your team.
Kristen and her senior team dedicate the beginning of each meeting to a culture check.
“We always have it as a standing agenda item before we address our other work. It can be tempting to skip, but we know that as soon as we do, we’ve let go of our principles.”
This is a simple practice to institute with your executive team that enables you continually ingrain and develop important traditions into your culture.
“Failure bows, the Koru clap, and chant, those things may seem silly and strange, but they make you feel a part of something…The company you start out building is going to be different than the company you have in the future…You have to build a foundation of ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ so that in moments of chaos or unexpected change, you know who you are and why you’re here.”