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Fiche de lecture : “Your Startup is Broken” par Shanley Kane

Your Startup is Broken est une suite d’essais écrite par Shanley Kane, une journaliste féministe spécialisée sur la technologie. Elle explique les dysfonctionnements de la culture startup en confrontant la mythologie officielle avec la réalité du terrain.

Pour l’auteure, la culture d’un groupe ce n’est pas seulement les valeurs qu’il met en avant et ses habitudes visibles, c’est aussi tout ce qui reste non-dit : les croyances qui le guident, les normes sociales qu’il applique, les dynamiques de pouvoir qui le structurent.

Si on ne les prend pas en compte ces éléments, on ne peut avoir qu’une vision limitée du fonctionnement du groupe. Il est donc plus difficile de percevoir ses problèmes et de mettre en œuvre des solutions.

Or dans les startup deux freins rendent difficiles de parler de ces aspects:

  • Ces entreprises donnent beaucoup d’importance à l’image qu’elles ont d’elles-mêmes, tout ce qui pourrait la remettre en cause est donc tabou.

  • Elles pensent que ce type de problèmes n’existent que dans les grandes société : comment concevoir qu’on a un problèmes de management alors qu’on est une structure sans manager, ce dont on est d’ailleurs très fier ? Se réclamer de l'«agile» immuniserait contre tous ces problèmes.

L’auteure passe en revue, d’un œil aiguisé et sur un ton parfois acerbe, les différents mythes et croyances qu’on retrouve partout, et détaille pour chacun d’entre eux quels effets pervers il peut provoquer et comment s’en protéger.

Ayant elle-même travaillé dans ce milieu sans en partager complètement les codes, elle parle d’expérience. Les questions de genre et de minorité occupent d’ailleurs une place importante: dans ce monde composé très majoritairement d’hommes blancs hétérosexuels qui se comportent souvent comme des adolescents gâtés, ce sont souvent les femmes et les minorités dont on se préoccupe le moins et qui subissent le plus ces non-dits

Si le livre est principalement dédié aux startup, il s’applique à toutes les structures qui s’en réclament tant ils ont tendance à partager les mêmes biais : c’est un guide de survie pour tous ceux qui travaillent dans cet univers.

Vous pouvez acheter le livre pour 10$ ici. Si le sujet vous intéresse je vous conseille de lire Model View Culture un magazine dirigé par Shanley Kane qui traite de ces sujets et de la suivre sur twitter.

Quelques citations:

Culture is not about the furniture in your office. It is not about how much time you have to spend on feel-good projects. It is not about catered food, expensive social outings, internal chat tools, your ability to travel all over the world, or your never-ending self-congratulation.

Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly. It is as much about the inevitable brokenness and dysfunction of teams as it is about their accomplishments.

Culture is exceedingly difficult to talk about honestly. The critique of startup culture that came in large part from the agile movement has been replaced by sanitized, pompous, dishonest slogans.

Let’s examine popular startup trends that are being called “culture” and look beneath the surface to find the real culture that may be playing out below. This is not a critique of the practices themselves, which often contribute value to an organization. This is to show a contrast between the much deeper, systemic cultural problems that are rampant in our startups and the materialistic trappings that can disguise them.

We are able to reject qualified, diverse candidates on the grounds that they “aren’t a culture fit” while not having to examine what that means - and it might mean that we’re all white, mostly male, mostly college-educated, mostly young/unmarried, mostly binge drinkers, mostly from a similar work background. We tend to hire within our employees' friend and social groups. Because everyone we work with is a great culture fit, which is code for “able to fit in without friction,” we are all friends and have an unhealthy blur between social and work life. Because everyone is a “great culture fit,” we don’t have to acknowledge employee alienation and friction between individuals or groups. The desire to continue being a “culture fit” means it is harder for employees to raise meaningful critique and criticism of the culture itself.

We don’t have managers and the company is managed with no hierarchy

What your culture really says: Management decisions are siloed at the very top layers of management, kept so close to the chest they appear not to exist at all. The lack of visibility into investor demands, financial affairs, HR issues, etc. provides an abstraction layer between employees and real management, which we pretend doesn’t exist. We don’t have an explicit power structure, which makes it easier for the unspoken power dynamics in the company to play out without investigation or criticism.

The construction of programming as the creative and corporate power center within organizations helps the management of tech companies - especially large ones - recruit and retain programming talent despite the fact that the actual amount of influence and autonomy programmers can exercise may be much lower than what the myth itself suggests.

Do not shame learners.

Inside companies, technical ability is a classification used to distribute wealth, create in/out groups, and prevent minorities and underrepresented populations from being valued and included.

Create a culture where making fun of someone for asking beginner questions isn’t acceptable, where “she’s not that technical” isn’t a way to devalue someone, and where everyone feels responsible for educating each other.

“Culture” is on the lips of every self-impressed, ego-bound man-child and his cabinet of college buddy executives as his company begins to grow. He begins to feel poetic and nostalgic about the early days, fancying himself as the architect of an innovative and revolutionary approach to managing companies, even if in fact the “good old days” were shaped far more by nepotism, entitlement, privilege and undeserved funding than by some unprecedented insight into company operations.

In this period of nostalgia and self-congratulation, one often can observe numerous efforts launched to “maintain the culture” as new employees enter, operations scale and some undefined fear of “losing the culture” emerges amongst the “old timers.” It’s not uncommon for HR to be tasked with this role, or for HR operations to be suddenly subsumed under, replaced by or neglected for recently-invented roles like “Culture Officers” or “Employee Happiness” teams.

Sadly, the culture that is set out as the revered object of “maintenance” efforts is an artifact quickly losing relevance to the growing organization, and a romanticization and formalization of it can calcify the ultimate growth and prosperity of the organization. When critical roles like HR are bound to a reactionary mission based around romanticization of the past, rather than a progressive charter of growing and adapting the culture, the company can rapidly become dysfunctional, hostile to new employees, and unable to adapt to the needs of a growing organization.

I understand that culture is mainly comprised of the things no one will say.

Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies.

Dignity, security, work-life balance, achievement, autonomy and growth are the only perks that matter.

No methodology is a panacea. Every methodology is problematic.

No methodology is a substitute for effective management. All methodology applied uncritically will fail.