A Cultural Primer

Invitae: A Cultural Primer

Invitae is a multidisciplinary company executing a novel business model in a highly technical, highly regulated, and overly complex industry against a backdrop of rapid and disruptive technological advancement. In order to execute our shared vision—to bring genetics into mainstream medicine to improve healthcare for billions of people on the planet—we must operate on an incredibly high level. Thriving in a world of ever-accelerating technology cycles and relentlessly increasing competition requires crisp execution, but also an ability to innovate at scale. This, innovation at scale, is a notoriously difficult problem, one that most traditional organizations routinely fail to solve.1 What typically happens, is a cycle that starts with an initial burst of innovation that is soon followed by the price of success in the form of ever-increasing organizational complexity. Widely adopted methods for taming organizational complexity make companies manageable and predictable, but also often leave them stagnant and vulnerable to disruption. At Invitae, we’re building an organization that can continuously innovate at scale. Equally importantly, we’re building a company where we love to work.

Culture at Invitae

The values informing how we operate can best be described as ‘culture.’ It’s a word bandied about by the leadership of just about every company in existence but rarely taken seriously as means to achieve the mission of the company. At Invitae, we view our work culture as both an important tool in achieving our goals and a true competitive advantage. Like most things in a rapidly growing company, culture at Invitae is a work in progress. We will continuously try some things that will work, and we will certainly try and abandon some things that don’t. Most importantly, we will constantly strive to maintain a differentiated culture and expect you to participate directly in doing so. We don’t claim to have all the answers, nor are we certain ‘how far is too far,’ but we do know this: great companies have strong cultures, and average companies have average cultures.

We aspire to greatness!

Why we are here

It’s important to keep in mind that we craft our culture to serve our mission, and we will adjust our culture from time to time to optimize the pursuit of that mission. When deciding what needs to change and what works, as with all decisions made at Invitae, we consider the following:

  • Our first priority is to obsess over our customers: patients first, then clinicians and payers.
  • Our employees are essential to our ability to serve our customers. We make it a priority to attract, develop, and retain exceptional employees and motivate them to obsess over our customers.
  • Next, we focus on long-term shareholders, who will see substantial return on investment over time if we successfully improve life for our customers and motivate our employees to obsess over them. We do not believe that we can satisfy short-term shareholders and create astounding long-term value at the same time.

Cultural Tenets

It’s impossible to distill our cultural tenets into three or four feel-good and non-controversial statements, but it is not impossible to describe what we aspire to:

  • Team above the individual
  • Radically honest communication
  • Freedom with accountability
  • Transparency and data-informed action
  • A sense of urgency

Team above the individual

The individuals that form this company are all here to pursue a shared vision. Trust is assumed as we put the needs of our teammates above our own, and the expectation is that you will check your ego at the door and rise above your own fears and insecurities.

It’s important not to confuse ‘liking’ someone, ‘working well together,’ or ‘feeling good’ about each other with what it’s like to be a part of a great team. We aspire to a hard-won camaraderie that is quite different, and we feel is essential, for high functioning teams to perform. We challenge each other to perform at our highest level, which can be uncomfortable at times. However, we constantly support each other and remain vigilant against the use of the typical political tactics that dominate interpersonal relationships in most companies. When the team wins, the whole team wins together. When we lose, we all lose together, dust ourselves off, learn what we can from it, and prepare for the next challenge.

We also strive to make sure that in our efforts to create a cohesive working environment, we don’t end up driving conformity and devolve to the mean in the process. We depend on each other to deliver on our commitments and hold each other accountable. Whenever we need to change something or try a different approach to win, we expect you to be thinking about the needs of the team above your own. And as we reorganize our efforts from time to time, it is critical that we all keep this mind: we are a team, not a family.

Radically honest communication

While the time and energy spent engaging in social niceties and glancing discourse is necessary for strangers, it is not necessary on a high-functioning team, and in fact, slows us down, costing us essential time and capital.

At Invitae we expect that when you speak you will say what you mean and mean what you say. Speaking indirectly or ‘in code’ is frowned upon. In all situations, no matter how uncomfortable, we should be seeking the truth of the matter together and finding solutions rather than advancing an argument or sustaining some narrative.

At all levels of the organization, we aspire to have the courage to challenge the status quo and speak up with new ideas and new approaches. We demand swift execution following a decision, but we also encourage vigorous debate in the formation of that decision. As you find yourself part of a discussion or debate, speak up if you have an opinion and argue your point until the decision is made. Once a decision is made, however, you’re expected to set aside your disagreement and execute. Your ability to ‘disagree and commit’ is key to working on a team. Radically honest communication can be jarring at first, but in the long term it is both liberating and absolutely essential for truly effective teamwork.

There are many reasons why we end up parting ways with teammates, but speaking up and challenging the team will never be one of them.

Freedom with accountability

We strive to hire great people onto our team and largely stay out of their way as they execute. We are short on policy and long on personal accountability, expecting everyone in the company to behave like the highly competent and responsible adults that we are.

We execute aggressively, expect a reasonable number of mistakes, and try to be disciplined about learning from them. Instead of hiding from failure and looking for scapegoats, we want to make sure that failure serves as a learning experience and makes us stronger. With that said, we also need to make sure everyone understands the ‘waterline’ concept. Imagine Invitae figuratively as a boat, and everyone on it is either running it or working to improve it. If you are working on the part of the hull that’s under the water, make doubly sure you’re checking in with someone who might have a broader view on the ramifications of a mistake.

And very importantly, we do not tolerate a victim mentality on our team. All manner of challenges will arise as we rapidly grow, and we expect everyone to leverage their relative freedom to engage and be a part of the solution. Pointing out what’s wrong with other teammates, other parts of the organization, or why some set of externalities is preventing you from contributing, without at least attempting to suggest a plan of action is not acceptable. You have the freedom to solve problems and improve our working environment daily, and you are expected to use it.

Transparency and data-informed action

Transparency is a primary forcing function for many of our cultural aspirations. It is a source of strength because it allows more of our team to understand the context for decision making and execution. This understanding is the foundation on which creative and even disruptive solutions can be developed. The lack of transparency breeds mistrust, complicates decision making, and cripples our ability to execute.

We never hide data, results, or other information. Nor is it ever acceptable to compartmentalize any information for use as political currency. You will notice that we spend a lot of time openly reviewing metrics, preferably without a lot of pre- analysis or messaging attached to them. The purpose of routinely generating and reviewing metrics and other data is to help us identify areas of weakness, no matter how uncomfortable we find the story conveyed by the data, and more importantly to continuously improve and explore new possibilities for the future. You must be curious and interested in constantly learning more to thrive here.

We expect that our team’s first instinct is to shed as much light on as much information as possible when facing a challenge. We also harbor an innate distrust for the use of narratives in motivating action. There are often many well-founded opinions and feelings about what the team’s next best step could be; however, we prefer to use data-based indicators and trends instead of anecdote and personal beliefs. As we use data to guide decisions, we expect that you will concern yourself more with the measured outcome of success for the company, and less with who gets acknowledgment, ‘credit,’ or ‘airtime.’ We are far more interested in the former than the latter, and over time, your team will certainly know the difference.

Sense of urgency

The teammates around you are passionate about our mission and dedicated to the work at hand. We hold ourselves to an extremely high standard and expect far above average productivity. Our work is incredibly complex, with both precision and speed required in an unforgiving landscape. We need to tame that complexity, simplify, and execute. We believe that we will succeed at this challenge, and if you’re here... you need to as well! There are thousands of reasons why any difficult endeavor may not work—we’re interested in driving forward, diligently applying ourselves, and finding the one or two ways in which it will.

The mindful use of time is essential for everything, from making sure we’re nimble and capital-effective as a company to building an environment where people have the time to spend outside of work, serving other interests and responsibilities in their lives. Time very well may be one of our most precious assets, and we will not tolerate any wasting of it.

We expect that you will take initiative, own the outcomes of the team’s actions, and always be looking for innovative ways to contribute and drive progress. Rapid and pragmatic decision making with a strong bias for action needs to be second nature for leaders here at Invitae. You are encouraged to engage, execute swiftly, use good judgment on what needs to be done — and even more importantly, what doesn’t.

We expect you to engage with a sense of urgency!

Keep in mind that while we largely focus internally when discussing our culture, the externally-facing aspect is just as important. The way we conduct ourselves publicly reflects on the organization as a whole and it’s critical that we behave in a way that’s consistent with our culture when representing Invitae to the outside world.

It is our hope that as you join team Invitae, you will come to appreciate these tenets as our means to the ends of building a company that you can feel great about being a part of. You are expected to help us grow and modify our culture over time, and most importantly, to challenge us when we are not living up to it. The team is counting on you to do so — don’t let us down!

Interested in working with the Invitae team?