Taming a Type-A Culture Gone Wild

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on BNET Insight | BNET Blog

San Francisco-based Method is one of those quirky companies where the halls bustle with smart, opinionated hipsters who, compared to most of us, actually love their jobs. Employees conduct meetings while knitting in the “craft pod,” playing ping pong in the Astroturf room, or just sitting in the middle of an open, office-less floor plan and writing their many ideas on whiteboards that span entire walls. The vibrant atmosphere has helped propel the nine-year-old company to more than $100 million in sales and put its laundry detergent, hand soap, and other products onto the shelves of stores like Target, Lowe’s, and Safeway. But several years ago, after a period of rapid sales growth and frantic hiring, the free flow of ideas started to get a little too free. Arguments were breaking out in the middle of the very public encampment of cubicles. Employees who should have been talking with one another weren’t. For a cleaning products company composed of “people against dirty,” things were getting messy.

It was a moment many growing companies face, when the old ways of doing things no longer scale and the problems point toward more adult supervision and some kind of formalized structure. Method’s thirty-something co-founders, Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, realized that the company’s “anybody can say anything anytime” environment had to evolve. The challenge was to do it in a way that would preserve a sense of creativity and fun. “In the early days of Method when we all sat in one room, our culture was right there for all to see,” explains Ryan. “When we grew out of that space, when you could no longer stand up and holler to any other employee, we knew it was time to specify what was important to us.”

The Rules of the Office

So Ryan and Lowry spent several weeks passing a notebook back and forth, jotting down ideas. They spelled out, in a set of five principles, how employees should conduct themselves. Each of the five was then printed on brightly colored laminated cards and handed out to every employee at the company’s kickoff meeting in early 2006. When new employees join the company, they are given their own collection of cards. Two of the cards addressed the restraint side of the equation:

  • Collaborate instructs employees to “communicate directly” and “demonstrate understanding” with colleagues as well as to assume co-workers “want the best for you.”
  • Care asks that everyone “care for each other, our customers, and our environment.” The card reads, “We’re like care bears, but cooler.”

The rest of the values work to preserve Method’s inventive culture:

  • Innovate tells Method employees to “always be creating.”
  • Keep Method Weird assures employees that they should feel free to let their freak flag fly and “infect other people with your passion.”
  • The rhetorical What Would MacGyver Do? attempts to harness some of the aggressive type A tendencies at Method by defining resourcefulness as “not accepting no for an answer” and “looking under rocks for what other have missed.”

The big challenge in this kind of program, of course, lies in making sure those values survive the rah-rah stage and don’t simply devolve into a bland mission statement that no one pays attention to. Kerry Sulkowicz, founder of the Boswell Group, a consulting firm that focuses on the psychology of business, says that it’s up to the company’s leaders to make the values stick, and they can only do that by example. “Leaders have to assume they are under constant scrutiny,” says Sulkowicz.

Making the Rules Stick

In the spirit of leading by example, Keep Method Weird has been incorporated into the company’s hiring process. It’s now one of the questions (“What would you do to keep Method weird?”) prospective employees must answer. “We want to know people are going to bring their personality to the company,” explains Katie Molinari, Method’s head of public relations. “A fun brand can only come from fun people.” One interviewee answered the question by conducting a spontaneous yoga session for the team interviewing her. Another who was learning to play the guitar led a roving musical lesson in a march around the office. Both applicants were swiftly hired.

In addition, Lowry and Ryan created a Values Award for which employees can nominate each another. Every Monday after the company’s weekly morning huddle, the winner, if there is one that week, spins a Wheel of Fortune-type wheel to determine their prize. Bounty has included everything from a dinner gift certificate to a holiday turkey and a trip to Las Vegas.

As part of the Collaborate principle, most employees are uprooted twice a year to different work stations, where they find themselves sitting next to new cubicle-mates. Josh Handy, who heads up the design of Method’s stylish and shapely packaging, now sits next to the left-brained chemists who concoct the product formulas, something unusual at a consumer products company. Handy thinks this proximity has helped avoid a repeat of the 2007 catastrophe in which the formula inside a new line of body washes and lotions was too thick to be squeezed out of a pretty but inflexible bottle. Now all designers consult with the formulators before designing new products, avoiding future headaches.

“Part of signing on to be a Method employee is agreeing to live the values, which provide a kind of ‘true north’ for everyone’s behavior,” says Ryan. “That’s why it works.”

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