Jason Fried

January 6, 2023

The new normal

Normal comes on quick.

First it starts as an outlier. Some behavior you don't love, but tolerate. Then someone else follows suit, but either you miss it or you let it slide. Then people pile on — repeating what they've seen because no one stepped in to course correct.

Then it's too late. It's become the culture. The new normal.

This happens in organizations all the time. A single snarky remark can cascade into a storm of collective snark in the same way a single spark can ignite a forest fire. And, implicitly, when you let it happen, it becomes okay. You're complicit in the arson. Behavior unchecked becomes behavior sanctioned.

And it doesn't just have to be ugly, malicious behavior. It could be allowing poor quality out the door. Normalizing meetings for things that don't need that level of real-time attention. Pulling people off one important thing to attend to another thing less important. Designing by committee. Lowering hiring standards.

Whatever you do becomes how it's done. And the higher up it's done, the more influence it loads on the structure below.

We've gone down this path a number of times at 37signals. There was a time when someone working on a difficult case with a difficult customer could vent disparagingly in a company chat room, and nobody would say anything. Or we'd all rip on a company that made a mistake, forgetting that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Or we'd ship something that wasn't good enough because we didn't want the team that worked on it to feel bad.

We kinda knew it wasn't right, but we didn't stop it. Which just made it that much harder when we finally decided enough was enough.

Unwinding the new normal requires far more effort than preventing the new normal from being set in the first place. If you don't want gnarly roots in your culture, you have to mind the seeds.

You don't have to let something slide for long before it becomes the new normal. Culture is what culture does. Culture isn't what you intend it to be. It's not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It's what you do. So do better.

And the good news is that culture is really a 50-day moving average. It's not a steady state. It's what you've done recently, what you're doing now, and what happens next. It's both along for the ride, and the ride itself. It's the byproduct of behavior.


This essay was adapted from our book, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work.

About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.