Jurgen Appelo on Create Your Own Culture Book



This is a guest post by Jurgen Appelo on how employees are creating their own culture books to change the game in the workplace.

Culture books created by employees, for employees, help create and reinforce the values that bring their company to life.

If you don’t know Jurgen, he was rated the #40 management & leadership expert in the world, and the #6 most influential person in Agile; his blog was rated  the #3 most popular Agile blog in the world; and his books, such as Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders,  are considered best-sellers.

Without further ado, here’s Jurgen …

Create Your Own Culture Book

In a land far, far away, and in a time long, long past, I was a senior student at the Technical University in Delft, The Netherlands, employed by the Faculty of Computer Science as a Student Assistant. I was one of the people paid to evaluate the programming assignments of first-year students which meant I could tell them that the word end had to be properly aligned under begin and that the purpose of indentation was to make code readable, not to balance the white space equally in both margins.

One of the things I did, from the bottom of my big compassionate heart, was to create a Freshmen’s Guide. It was a simple little book, explaining where to find exams and grades, where to find the student’s society, where to go with study problems, and where to find the better parties. I added plenty of handmade illustrations and silly jokes because I wanted the students to find it an interesting read. I am happy to say that my booklet was not only supported by the student’s society and paid for by the faculty but the idea was also copied by some of the most famous companies in the world many years later.

Employee Handbooks

IDEO is arguably the most famous design company in the United States, and for good reason. Its Little Book of IDEO spells out the important values of the organization, such as “be optimistic”, “embrace ambiguity”, and “learn from failure”. One statement I like in particular is “make others successful”, which means that employees should always strive to help each other out. Unlike my own Freshmen’s Guide, IDEO’s little book can be downloaded from the Web. [Amabile, Fisher and Pillemer, “IDEO’s Culture”; Brown, “Little Book of IDEO”]

Valve, a highly successful gaming company, has a Handbook for New Employees which was created by a small team of developers and designers. The handbook, which contains great illustrations—yes, better than mine—and nice jokes and stories, was published first as a print edition and later made available as a downloadable PDF. The document not only inspired many companies in the world as a shining example of a flat organizational structure but it also showed that employee handbooks don’t have to be boring and can be created by employees. [Coomer, “The Best Employee Handbook”; Valve, “Handbook”]

Another example is offered by online retailer Zappos, a company with an official Culture Book which is also written by its employees and updated every year. The book tells stories of how people feel about the company, and the employees take care that the company’s culture is developed and reinforced all the time. Like the Valve Handbook, Zappos’s Culture Book is freely available for download. [Heathfield, “Zappos Reinforces Its Company Culture”; Zappos, “Culture Book”]

By Employees, For Employees

Obviously, such handbooks and culture books only work when employees actually use them and know what they say. All too often, employee handbooks are created by human resources departments, not by employees themselves, and are devoid of any emotion. Values are offered as bullet points and accompanied by rules, policies, and legal disclaimers. It’s no wonder that, with such handbooks buried deep down in file systems, employees usually have no affinity with any values of the company. The real culture communicated in cases like these is “culture is defined by managers” and “we’re not supposed to have fun”.

Perhaps the most famous example of a great culture book that actually worked is the Netflix Culture document, which says that it all starts with freedom & responsibility at this company. At Netflix, they actually practice what they preach because the company offers total freedom with regard to vacations, flex-time, and travel expenses. [Baer, “Netflix’s Major HR Innovation”; Netflix, “Netflix Culture”]

Some say, as an example of how a company can create and reinforce a culture with values, it is the most important document ever to have come out of Silicon Valley. [McCord, “How Netflix Reinvented HR”]

Next time an HR department gives you a standard boring employee handbook, tell them, “Thank you! This might be very useful as input for the culture book that the employees are making with each other.”

Jurgen Appelo is the most popular European leadership author, listed on Inc.com’s Top 50 Management Experts. His latest book Management 3.0 Workout, full of concrete games, tools, and practices, is available for free. Download it here: http://m30.me/wo


  1. Jurgen,

    Thank you for bringing this topic up. I still remember being hired a few years back and being given one of those ‘boring’ and (so called) employee welcome kits – 5 million words, very little actionable advice.

    Anyway, I just wanted to jump in and share our very own culture book. It’s called “The Small Book of The Few Big Rules” – http://www.outsystems.com/the-small-book/

    We are a technology company, experiencing very high growth and creating such a book was key to keep our DNA alive. Everyone loves it and several of our customers worldwide adopted it as their own, which makes us even more proud 🙂


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