Camping Coffee (or how to build a culture)

I woke up this morning in a campground that has been carefully tucked into a grove of coastal redwoods along the Big Sur coastline.

In this beautiful setting just after 6:00 a.m. I had the chance to engage in one of my favorite camping rituals, perking a pot of coffee.

A percolator works by the force of gravity. Heated water makes its way up a central tube, allowing the water to spill over the coffee grounds and then drip back into the main reservoir.

The water darkens as it continuously cycles through this process – essentially making itself – until it gets to the color and strength of your preference. This means that you have to pay attention.

Maybe it’s the beauty of the setting or the simplicity of the process itself but I think perking makes a great cup of coffee.

I also think it’s a helpful way to consider building a solid and sustainable company culture.

If you start with great people a sort of human gravity will take over. Great people want to work with other great people to do great things. They just need the right conditions – a reliable heat source, for example – to make possible what they are already inclined to do.

As your great people move around and among one another within the conditions you’ve established – values, direction, clarity – they are the ones who end up making the culture by the way they wash over those ingredients and bring them to life. Great people, given time and support, will make a sustainable culture themselves.

But this doesn’t mean you can ignore what’s happening. You still have to pay attention.

An inconsistent heat source, the lack of essential conditions (clear values, etc.) and the segregation of teams into silos of responsibility will prevent the washing over effect and leave you with a weak culture.

Too much heat, along with conditions that, because too rigid leave no room for interpretation or expression, will over-saturate your people. With too much expected and extracted from them as culture warriors (“one of us…one of us”) they will lose their agency, the belief that through their own efforts they can impact the organization for the better.

Building a culture, like making a great pot of camping coffee, requires a thoughtful blend of art and science. By setting the right conditions and giving it thoughtful attention, it will surprise you by seeming to make itself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s