Mar 12, 2019

By Stephanie Lacy-Price
People & Communications Specialist at Iris Automation

From the Iris Culturebook, 2019.

Finalizing our company values and building them into our culture is the work I’m most proud to have taken on during my time at Iris and has formed the bridge between my personal and professional lives. Values are integral to any organization, but not inevitable —  they take intention, revisiting, and critical assessments of what we do and why. Today I want to share my role in this process at Iris.

Aligning our values

During my initial phone interview, CEO Alex Harmsen asked about a project I had listed on my resume — community-building with a group of formerly incarcerated citizens via the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. It was the first time an interviewer had asked about it, let alone a CEO who listened patiently while I gushed about its meaningfulness to my life.This was just a glimpse into the type of company I was about to join. Later, during onboarding, Director of Operations Grace McKenzie introduced me to Iris’ company values. With a keen awareness of the “bro culture” reputation many Bay Area startups have, open discussion about values reassured me that I wouldn’t find that at Iris.

I joined 10 male-identified people in the San Francisco office working above an auto body shop on a sparse corner of the Mission District. Iris had closed Series A funding the month before and was working its way from scrappy startup to established company. In a few months we would move into a larger space in the Financial District, but until then for our weekly Learning Lunches and Friday all-team lunches (conferencing with our then 6-person Reno team) we would shuffle single file in and out of our small conference room. And of course there was the one single stall bathroom I had the pleasure of sitting closest to. Exasperating as these conditions sometimes were, they created a closeness that is nearly impossible to replicate, particularly since everyone in the office was a bystander to nearly every conversation each of us had. While the team was already distributed, there was a lot of interfacing between everyone, which afforded empathy through understanding each other’s motivations, personal lives, and working styles.

Rest break during move in to the Iris Automation San Francisco office in 2017.

I was one of the first hires post-Series A, brought in to wrangle the burgeoning operations load and to guide culture with an eye on our rapid team growth. My experience with culture comes not from the professional realm, but my personal life. In the projects I’m involved with, such as the one with formerly incarcerated citizens, and, yes, my Burning Man camp, established values such as gratitude, intention, and experimentation guide the directions we take and form a groundwork on which to build our communities. Through these I experience support, skill building, and meaningful work and social connection that I wanted to bring with me to Iris, and to seamlessly transition between my values in both my work and home lives. But how could I translate the practices from projects and communities that aren’t hierarchical or revenue-driven to a startup setting? Enter co-creation.

Co-creating our values

The Iris values I’d been introduced to had been workshopped at the second annual company retreat a few months before I was brought on. But they hadn’t been fully agreed on (the words themselves rather than the intent behind them) or put into practice beyond a slide in the onboarding presentation. By the time I started poking around, many teammates weren’t even aware we had established values.

So, in the months preceding our next retreat in September 2018, now with a team more than doubled in size from the previous retreat, I set out to co-create our values and make them core to who we are as an organization. The first iteration of these was in a group discussion at the 2017 retreat. I wanted to take a different tactic this time to ensure everyone’s voice was heard and to avoid getting hung up on semantics.

I began with 20-minute interviews with every teammate, asking questions such as what they believed are our greatest strengths and weaknesses as an organization and the most meaningful experience they’ve had at Iris. I then plotted everyone’s responses into a spreadsheet and highlighted the key themes that arose. I mapped these out against the current stated values to determine which we should keep, drop, or iterate on. For example, our value Continuous Learning was something clearly lived by Iris through our weekly Learning Lunches and annual professional development stipend, and curiosity was the most cited trait that teammates valued in each other.

One of the most moving discoveries for me was how approachable folks at every level believed their teammates to be, feeling they could ask for and receive support anytime without impatience or condescension. I captured this dynamic in our value Open Communication.

After presenting and workshopping my draft values statement with leadership, I presented the finalized version (shown in the image at the top of the post) at the retreat along with a brainstorm on how to ensure values alignment as we continue to grow. To name just a few outcomes of that dialogue, I’ve created a separate Values & Culture onboarding presentation, instituted ‘Values check-ins’ a few weeks after hire to receive feedback from new teammates on how they feel Iris is living our values, and worked with Talent Acquisition to create an interview scorecard that encompasses a values assessment in lieu of the oft-problematic ‘culture fit’ question. And this is just the beginning.

Living our values

The 2018 Iris Automation Ugly Sweater Contest winners. From left: Angelo Stekardis, Zack Goyetche, and Tamiko Sianen.

I’m most proud of the addition of Recognition to our values, for being both one of my personal values and as a practice pointed to frequently in my research with the team. While planning our most recent holiday party, I made sure to include space for a gratitude circle and a discussion of cultural holiday practices, in addition to your standard ugly sweater contest and gift exchange party fare, because it’s important to publicly thank each other for support and jobs well done and to learn about the differing backgrounds that inform who each of us are and the perspective we bring to our work. It’s small, but it can make a huge impact on how we show up to our roles.

I love that Iris has allowed me to bring important values practices from my own life, such as gratitude circles, into our professional context. I feel, and strive for the rest of the team to feel, that they don’t need to check who they are and what’s important to them when they walk through the door to start their workday.

While I was working on this article, our Director of R&D exemplified my favorite value beautifully. This is the culture I’ve worked towards keeping at Iris and will continue to steward as we grow. ❤

Head of R&D Alejandro Galindo recognizes Computer Vision Engineer Nikhilesh Ravishankar for his recent work.