Taming a Type-A Culture Gone Wild

Last Updated Dec 4, 2009 8:17 PM EST

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.

Method founders Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan in their San Francisco office

Method founders Adam Lowry (left) and Eric Ryan
at their San Francisco office.

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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