The Triple H culture framework

As embarrassing as our modern intellectual culture considers it to be, when I was a child I actually enjoyed watching wrestling. I could stay up until late at night and watch old Attitude Era clips, smelling what The Rock had been cooking before Dwayne Johnson became a global movie star.

This post however is not about pro wrestling, but about a mental model for understanding organisational cultures. I first heard about it in Andrew Chen’s newsletter, who called it:

The Head/Heart/Hands framework

My top essays/tweetstorms in 2019 on product/market fit, investing, KPIs, YouTubers, and more. Andrew Chen’s newsletter, 9 Jan 2020.

Upon seeing this heading, the part of my brain developed during early puberty (with wrestling imprinted lamentably deeply), the part that I’m usually supposed to suppress with reason and conformity, suddenly sprang to life: I have a better name for this framework! Let me hereby describe the now rebranded Triple H framework. Time to play the game…

The first H stands for Head. It is about intellect, how much thought and analysis goes into decisions, to what extent it is OK to slow down and think. Gut feeling is the enemy.

The second H refers to Heart and it is about empathy and compassion. It doesn’t only mean taking extra care not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but also emphasising fairness and considering decision factors beyond profitability, such as ethical values or social causes.

The final H stands for Hands. It emphasises getting shit done, so I better not waste any more time writing this paragraph and move on.

Here are the main pros and cons of being culturally high on each H.

High on…Pros when done wellCons when overdosed
Head– Avoids waste and bad commitments
– Helps handle complexity and ambiguity
– Slow & bureaucratic
– Uninspiring
Heart– Improves team engagement
– Avoids work environment toxicity
– Organisational objectives take second stage
– Discourages competitiveness
Hands– Agile
– Productive
– Error-prone
– Tendency to sacrifice work quality and team compassion

Your guess that the three H’s are spectra, not binary properties is correct. Andrew Chen suggests using a split totalling 100%, for instance 30% Head, 5% Heart and 65% Hands representing Uber’s culture, a notoriously competitive and task-oriented environment. The culture high in Hands gave Uber hyper-growth, but lead to a PR mess and an ongoing struggle to normalise the company’s ways.

Andrew Chen doesn’t mention any other companies by name, but notes that a high Heart company, while very friendly, might not get anything substantial done. Equally, a high Head company, even though with a very smart crew, could also fail to get anywhere productive.

A Head-first company coming to my mind may be Apple in the late 80s – early 90s. Full of experts in business and technology, they probably ran every analysis possible and determined that what the world needs is more Apple II and Macintosh variants. Meanwhile, the most creative people left and the company ended up nearly bankrupt.

Examples of Heart-first companies could be most startup accelerators. Networking events, dog-friendly offices, communal beer and yoga sessions make it clear that actual hard and smart work is low on the list of priorities. No wonder most of them never produce a noteworthy company.

I therefore believe that a functional company should optimise for the Hands dimension as much as possible, while maintaining sufficient levels of Heart and Head. In the end, business is about consistently and effectively bringing value to its customers. Prioritising something else, while potentially pleasing to some, makes the company more prone to being outcompeted or disrupted.

On the flip side, as Andrew Chen highlights, the ideal split is naturally different for each company, depending on industries and other factors in the business environment.

Another consideration in my mind is how this changes over the stages of a company. At the beginning, culture is very fluid and varies greatly based on the personalities and moods of the team. As the organisation matures, the culture gets ingrained more deeply, and change becomes harder. It is up to the founders to cultivate the correct Triple H equation from the start.

Organisational cultures are a fascinating topic, and as the post probably reveals, one where my knowledge could still be expanded. All of my examples relate to the tech industry. But I believe that because of its simplicity, the Triple H framework, Hands – Heart – Hands, is a useful mental model for institution builders.