Culture is What you Do!
My reflections from the Frappe Offsite at Lonavala in August '22 where we became one team
Humans are the manifestations of two broad elements. The particles, that form our physical body. And, the soul which exists in the form of waves”!
This is how Rohail Hayat, a musician from coke studio explains humans in his talk at Harvard. I loved it for the depth and sheer relentlessness with which Rohail was talking, especially about the soul.
I have been pretty curious to understand what soul/consciousness is. The talk was the first time I could comprehend the form in which the soul might be existing. The form can cut across the physical manifestation, like a radio signal.
The reason I am saying this is because I experienced a wave that connected all of us at Frappe. It was during a company offsite, which is aimed at bonding better as a team. What bonds a team better? An individual's team can align as they have a common goal and common challenges. But it’s not simple to align as an organization that has 10 different teams + ICs (individual contributors).
Call it magic, this time it worked. Almost all the teammates, irrespective of the team, were on the same page as if there was some wave binding us all together. It was an amazing feeling. I will try to put forth my perspective on how it happened.
I always thought understanding the company’s broader goal and mission could help us unite better. And we must talk about it. However, Frappe's goal and vision, you can consider it to be a mini Ph.D. And if you ask Rushabh about it, it will quickly become a mystery!
At Frappe, some of our values are excellence, honesty, transparency, democracy, and freedom. These are concepts that have evolved over centuries and are practiced at different levels in our society. We believe we live in a free country and are free citizens. But that’s not what we mean by freedom. Do you really enjoy freedom in expressing your views, without any fear? I doubt we have such an environment even in the countries calling themselves sovereign.
But in Frappe, we try to exercise. In this offsite, the very first session was to introduce and share the concerns which bother you. To my surprise, there were quite a few concerns about job security, debating culture at Frappe, team dynamics, business growth etc. Indeed people have this feeling, but everyone was made comfortable to express it now, without any fear of judgment. Few started, and the rest followed. We have honest concerns at hand.
It was easy to run away from it, as teams quickly turned to the operational discussion. But Rushabh stirred the pot once again with the poll.
And Frappe embarked on a journey to concerns people brought in their heads. This further reinforced the idea that “Culture and values are not what you say, but what you practice”.
Since freedom and transparency are the values, we openly discussed the concerns like why we suck at sales, how can it be fixed, what is the timeline available and what happens after that. The oldies were a bit prepared for this and had identified the sales leader already to guide the ship in the right direction.
Ambrish from YellowSpot joined on day 2 for a session on critical constructive feedback. The last three words summarized the session completely. Instead of saying what you want to say in that moment of excitement/anger/anxiety, hold yourself. Rationalize. Become human again and frame your sentences in a way that reaches the person in the calmest manner possible. Get the feedback across with composed words, not the negativity of emotions.
The exercise was also framed with an interesting activity where we as built a tower using spaghetti. Later we were asked to review each other's performance and give critical feedback to each other.
The learning from this session was “how to receive critical feedback”. Within the confines of a company, with a steading inflow of funds, we all are protected. But the market does give feedback, which you can’t control. The short-fall of visitors to your store is feedback. The customer checking your product, but ghosting later is feedback. Your colleagues deferring some discussion with you, is as feedback as well. And when the market gives feedback, we can’t tell them how to give critical feedback. Rather we have to develop emotional intelligence to receive it and construct it in a way to avail positive outcomes from it. Indeed it hurts in the beginning, but handling emotions is what we learn with experience. This also doesn't give a free pass to one giving the feedback. The line has to be drawn which prevents disrespectful behavior.
Image from Ted Lasso, where a concerned kitman gives honest feedback to senior players
After such honest feedback, this underdog team goes out and kicks out the favorite of seasons.
Pragmatism vs Principles
Kailash Nadh (aka K), the CTO at Zerodha and well-wisher of Frappe recently triggered a debate, that Frappe debates a lot. He questioned the Frappe team if Frappe is too principled and if it comes in a way of doing a business.
At the offsite, we continued the debate (on debate) and agreed that absolutism is the real issue. You have to stick to principles, and not compromise on the values for short-term gain. But we have to balance it with pragmatism. For example, we have a culture of democracy where every member has to vote on a proposal. However, there is a concern about involving every teammate in a discussion, taking their time, and sharing the context on what they need to vote on. It is expensive. Can we be a bit pragmatic here, and allow teams to take their own decisions unless there is no overlap? Yes. This makes lots of sense.
The learning from this discussion was an understanding of how important the culture of the debate itself is. It gives you a framework to improvise the original idea and polish it by taking everyone's perspective into account. Also, debate promotes the habit of questioning and objecting, and not accepting the status quo. Going back to my roots, I can think of lots of problems in my own community because there are no debates happening. Even worse, there are no platforms that empower debate. This in turn has made most of the loyal, blindly abiding beings, follow rules without objecting and discussing to make things better.
At the offsite, Frappe experienced the waves of alignment like never before, unknowing cutting across all of us. If this means what Frappe is, we should continue following it (obviously) and extend it further in the community. I see Frappe Partners being the first audience to get on a roller-coaster ride, where we are seeing awesome traction already.
Of course, this is apart from shipping software, bugs, fixes, pre-sales, and what you have. There is definitely some scope to form Socrates' chambers of debate, at Frappe )
Umair is Frappe's co-founder, VP - Partnerships, and mentor for Frappe School team.