When CEO Bijan Sanii joined the organization in 2006, INETCO seemed to be functioning well, operating “almost organically and with very little systematic management,” says Marc Borbas, Head of Global Sales. “Most things just seemed to come together and work,” he adds.
Some things, however, didn’t. “INETCO had a core group of people, and when I came on board I quickly added 10 people, and then as we came close to getting our product into the market we added a bunch more people,” explains Bijan. The result? “A lack of alignment, a mish-mash of cultures,” he says, leading to threats against the organization’s commercial profitability. “It was time to turn a leaf, exit the investment phase, and become a real company in terms of revenue and profitability.”
Bijan saw an opportunity to engage everyone in the organization in a conversation about the company’s culture. “I wanted to put the important issues on the table and see who our team players were. I wanted all of us to become conscious of who we are and what we’re trying to achieve.”
The question was how. How could INETCO soundly gather data about who it was and what it stood for? And how would that data reliably support, as Bijan sought, every hiring and product decision the organization would go on to make?
Making story real
Bijan turned to Steven Fitzgerald, Habanero president, and Cat Sanders, senior Habanero consultant, to collaborate with INETCO at this crossroads. “Steven and I were part of ACETECH, a technology academy, and I learned a lot from him over the course of a decade. When it came time to do this work, he was a natural connection,” says Bijan.
“We knew this was one of the more vulnerable moments in their history,” says Cat. With this in mind, we convened small-group settings where we invited people to share their stories about their experiences inside the organization,” says Steven. “We wanted to take them from appreciating their culture was great to knowing with some precision what it was that was good, what wasn’t working, and what they needed to do to evolve,” says Steven.
That’s why storytelling made sense as an approach. While Steven says there are a number of other methods that could have been used, he and Cat chose this one because, in the right environment, “it’s an amazing process that allows people to be vulnerable and draws out problems and opportunities.”
And subtly, too.
“The participatory approach was such a good way to get people’s defenses down,” says Marc. “It’s hard to find the words to define culture, when you’re simply asked to define it. It’s much easier to share a reflection or a story.”
Listening to 40 people (representing more than 80 per cent of employees) across eight separate sessions, Steven and Cat collected more than 100 stories. The stories were then anonymized and analyzed for topic, theme, sentiment, and patterns of interaction. The result was a conceptual understanding of theme. INETCO’s values and challenges came into view.
Seeing turning points
“The more stories we heard, the clearer the themes became,” says Steven. Bijan saw patterns, too. He recalls a particularly poignant moment when he realized that the path to growth wasn’t just a matter of putting together the right strategy; it was about having the right team. “We were workshopping about what we value, and I saw someone write that they don’t value loyalty and that it’s all about the product. Loyalty is a fundamental two-way value for INETCO. We expect a high level of loyalty to the company and in return, we stick by our people through their personal and professional growth and challenges. I realized in that moment that this person is categorically not going to be a fit, ever.”
“People learn so much from listening to their coworkers, and you can get incredible clarity while observing them,” says Steven.
Backed by close observation of the people in his organization and the data that emerged from the cultural storytelling sessions, Bijan had what he needed to make courageous change.
“A blueprint materialized for what I had to do,” Bijan reflects, “because I could see the fabric of the company—our orientation, what we were striving for, that we wanted to be focused on quality and integrity.”
The result? “For us, this process led to a complete restructuring that involved shifting responsibilities and moving people into different roles. Most dramatically, we removed some of our leadership team,” says Bijan. “It was a total ground-shift.”
Marc notes that another part of the ground-shift was an acceptance—what he calls a “thoughtful head nod”—to the company’s true identity. “A lot of the values that emerged are not what you would’ve thought for a tech company. We didn’t hear innovation, leading-edge, and putting in long hours. Some of our values are loyalty and doing the right thing, and that’s okay. You can run a perfectly successful tech company with core values that aren’t Apple’s.”
Six months after the workshops and analysis, Bijan says INETCO is noticing a dramatic difference in operation.
“I knew this would be a valuable process, but it has exceeded my expectations. Six months on, it has been incredible. There was a whole layer of friction that has disappeared. Our development cycles have reduced, we have better engineering, and we have maintained our revenues, despite major changes to our leadership and sales team.” More than that, Bijan says he notices a difference in the people around him: “This is a happier organization.”
Turning the page
While Marc admits he was initially skeptical of INETCO’s need for a cultural assessment, he’s now convinced the process was vital.
“Initially, I said to Bijan, ‘We’re a 40-person company. Do we really need this?’ I’ve come to think that it doesn’t matter how big or small you are. It’s amazing how easily a small group of people can fall out of lockstep.”
“What you don’t need, though, is a consultant coming in saying, ‘here’s our five-step cultural discovery process.’ Habanero isn’t like that at all. Their approach is grounded and pragmatic, thoughtful and gently applied. They really know what they’re doing.”
Similarly, Bijan said the assessment will guide future growth. “When you’re looking at the turning of a chapter, or a fork in the road, you’ve got to step back and be able to go through an exercise like this before you just wade in and make decisions. It’s worth every penny to go through the process and invest time and effort. The value pays back in spades.”