Nimbla opens up about open conversations

Creating an open culture is easy to say but hard to do. Here’s what Nimbla’s learned.

Like every other business reckoning with the implications of the new normal, Nimbla is facing interesting challenges when it comes to communicating with each other. As a startup, Nimbla requires our team stay on our toes and communicate openly so that we can troubleshoot quickly. So we’re motivated to seek ever better ways of communicating.  While it’s easy to say “we have an open and transparent culture”, the behaviours needed to actually make that so are less clear. So rather than pay lip service to things like transparency, constructive debate and psychological diversity, at Nimbla we’re trying to “live the questions” as Rilke put it, by testing what works for us.    

Most of us have worked in startups before, so we know from experience that by encouraging difficult conversations, we’ll build trust across the board. So we talk about how we can promote open communication, and actively encourage getting and giving open feedback across the organisation, regardless of status or experience. The goals of this are:

  • to drive results by helping each other think through our ideas.
  • to understand each other well enough to identify and discuss areas for improvement (we have an “obligation to dissent”).
  • to keep the team cohesive. 

What is Radical Candor? 

A few of Nimbla’s team have read Kim’s Scott’s Radical Candor (RC). In case you’re not familiar with it, the essence of the the concept is:

  • Care personally: Show you care (which happens to be one of our team’s values),
  • Challenge directly: Be willing to challenge assumptions (which takes both trust and courage, Nimbla’s other team values).

In practice this means having the courage to have difficult conversations with each other (challenge directly), while remaining non-confrontational (care personally). Which is easier said than done. In our case, Radical Candor is well aligned with Nimbla’s values, which helps incentivise the behaviour.

Initially, we tried out RC in a fairly informal way, by introducing it to the team and sharing some coaching and feedback techniques. Since the exercise is about opening up communication, we don’t shove RC down people’s throats. We have a flat structure and work hard to keep it that way, which means that tenure, experience or positions are a lesser consideration compared with each of us improving day to day. So the decision to extend our RC usage beyond immediate reporting relationships to the whole organisation was pretty organic. We encourage each person to share their feedback openly across the team. Our attitude is very much: if anyone thinks I’m saying something stupid, then I want to know and understand so I can develop.

Next we added Radical Candor to our recruitment conversations, with the understanding that it’s not for everyone. But it was extremely well received. It attracts candidates who understand the value of freedom and the growth potential that comes with communicating openly. We also include RC in our onboarding process when a new team member joins the business, in the form of a conversation on the topic and some practice. The aim is to help new team members overcome any initial reluctance they might have to approach the leadership team – or any team member – and tell them “You know when you do this thing, it makes you sound like an idiot” (Kim Scott’s example)!

Radical Candor Behaviour Chart

We used RC this way for about a year, doubled in size and then realised that conversations about RC were more frequent than people actually being radically candid with each other. Unsurprisingly, radically candid conversations were more common among team members who were naturally inclined to communicate that way, or knew each other well. So we reviewed our RC use by asking the whole team several questions:

  • Is this concept useful?
  • Is this something that we want to continue?
  • If yes, how can we help everyone use it more effectively?

We aggregated the team’s responses, which are displayed in the chart below.

Team Sentiment about Radical Candor

The green Pac Man shows that the response to RC was generally positive, though not overwhelmingly so. Digging further into the comments, we discovered that while the team appreciates the fact that RC is honest and gives everyone a voice, it is also perceived by some as confrontational or critical. The question became one of trust (one of Nimbla’s core values). Trust is also a skill, since it is founded on good communication. We explored these issues as a team using a Lunch & Learn session to focus the discussion on how best to enhance communications throughout the business.

To better inform our internal practice of effective communication and trust, we’ve gathered a few resources that we’ve found useful. The first comes from Brenee Brown. It’s the concept of ‘Braving’ which she outlines in Dare to Lead. To build trust, you need: Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, NonJudgment, Generosity.
It’s fairly self explanatory, and she goes into more detail in the document linked.

Another hurdle we had whilst embedding RC in the business was self perception. Ideas such as: “I don’t have the right to speak because I’m new”, or “because I have less experience”, or “because I’m wearing green”, whatever… Another book that’s helped with this is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. These agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best

The Four Agreements emphasises that ‘trust’ is not just my relationship with others, it’s also my relationship with me. How can I trust in others if I don’t trust in myself? Our perceptions of others are coloured by our perceptions of ourselves. So “being impeccable with our word” becomes all the more essential when working on communicating more effectively as a business. It takes practice, and can be uncomfortable. But for a company to pull together, it’s essential.

Another helpful concept we’ve discussed is Non-Violent Communication. NVC was created by Marshal Rosenberg, and at its simplest level it means removing emotions from potentially emotional conversations in order to express the core need. To use NVC, you follow these 4 steps:

  1. Observe and recap
  2. Describe emotions, not positions
  3. Identify needs
  4. Make a request

Ironically, communicating effectively is easily said, harder done. It takes a lot of practice and some courage. At Nimbla we build on a core understanding that we care for each other and are here to support each and each other’s growth. We’ve retained Radical Candor as a framework to give everyone a voice, and practice it consciously. If it’s the kind of tool you’re interested in, and Nimbla sounds like an interesting place to work, ping us. We’re growing fast and we’re on the lookout for new team members who can speak the truth.


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