Some things are non-negotiable

“Oatmeal is not negotiable” is the title of a story I read in a hotel bedside book during an overnight stay at the Marriott at London Heathrow.  The story of an interaction with JW Marriott and one of his executive chefs was an interesting reminder about how certain minutiae that define a company and may seem replaceable or erasable in ‘strategic planning’ sessions can have an unintended impact on the company’s culture.

As I drove home late from a meeting last night, a story from personal experience came to mind about that very topic.  I’d hired the first person into my prior company and, purely for our workday comfort, we decided to get a small drom fridge and stock it with Diet Dew (the 90s energy drink for programmers).  Over the next several years of the company’s growth, the drom fridge became a full-size double door unit, and Diet Dew was joined by a dozen other varieties of soda shared by 50 some employees.  Someone always filled up the fridge and gave me the expense voucher and I paid it.  Customers, employees, and all were welcome to partake.  The  procurement was a modest expense and didn’t bother any of us.

However, with the growth from 2 to 50 employees came the onerous task of needing to stock the fridge, take the empties to recycling, listen to Diet Coke haters whining about Diet Pepsi, and more.  Being a group of engineers, none of us was willing to ‘outsource’ the work to vendors and tried to do it ourselves.  So, one day when the fridge hadn’t been filled and one habitual complainer in the office was whining away, my partner and I decided enough was enough and the free soda was history.  We ordered a vending machine from Coke, priced the contents it at cost, and the vendor stocking the contents.  A few employees complained but none loud enough to make a difference.  It seemed like everyone was happy to get rid of the restocking duties.

Then one day, one of the company’s critical customers walked into the kitchen with me for a drink, glanced at the vending machine and said:

 I knew the company would change, and now it has.

A simple statement like this from a customer might be taken as a compliment, but this was different.  This particular customer had selected us against his initial gut feeling.  I had not forgotten his email to us prior to contract award with a dozen key concerns (like our small size, whether could we scale in DSM to service their account, etc.) about selecting us as a vendor.  We had assured him that we’d scale with him and had.  His business had caused us to more than double in a short period and his concerns seem to have been allayed.  Now, boom  – an apparent change that set off something negative.

He explained why so many elements of our culture were attractive to him – from the entrepreneurial drive amongst employees to do whatever to solve problems, frank disagreement with a customer followed by respectful discourse, a work-life balance AND ability to react to production problems,

With little deliberation the free soda returned.  The fridge was restocked.  We outsourced the delivery to Coke and Pepsi drivers, and our janitors offered to take the hundreds of recyclables and keep the money.  All were happy.

If something that tiny about our culture was visible to a stakeholder, then what else had gone unnoticed in the growth.   We could see the positives but where were the warts?  And what other things had employees come to simply accept as “growing pains”.  As the tiny company of 2 grew to 50, much had been gained and some had been lost along the way, presumably for the better.

Yet as a off-handed comment from a customer reminded me — be prepared to be surprised at what matters.