Transforming tech: 3 steps to create a startup-like culture in a big company

Published: Jun 23, 2022

Learn how Nutrien’s tech culture delivers on giving our people meaningful work that matters, and the authority to get it done.

As you may have noticed, Nutrien has become a sizable company in recent years – we have more than 23,000 employees and operations and investments around the world. This expansion creates huge opportunities for our business, as well as our global customers. However, often when organizations get bigger, they tend to lose agility.

The channels, process and structure that develop with growth are important, but they can also restrict adaptability and even curtail innovation. When Nutrien was created four years ago, we had the opportunity to establish a tech environment that feels more like a startup than big business – nimble, creative, empowered. And through detailed research, strategic planning and adaptive execution, we believe the tech culture we set out to create has been established.

We’re driven by a simple formula: give our people important, meaningful work that matters, and then give them the tools and the authority to do it. That’s obviously easier said than done, so we’re proud to give you a peek behind the curtain at Nutrien’s tech culture.

Step 1: Set the tone

We started by cultivating a mindset that describes and defines the kind of professionals we must be to thrive in our startup-like environment. We call that mindset our Fundamentals.

“And our people rise to the challenge," says Brent Poohkay, Nutrien’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. “They become experts not only on technology, but on our business. We take ownership, stay flexible and work as a team. Our people take initiative by anticipating internal client needs: pitching ideas proactively instead of waiting for them to approach us.”

Step 2: Provide the tools

We achieved this by establishing common ways of working across the organization through a fleshed-out framework.

When collaborating, it’s important that our team brings new, fresh and original ideas to the table, not fully baked proposals. Even when the ideas aren’t quite right, we iterate them as a team in rapid sprints to get to the right outcome quickly.

“We break complex problems down into bite-size chunks. We prioritize, commit and deliver,” Brent explains. “By creating this workflow template, we’ve created an environment where people from across the globe can collaborate quickly, clearly and conveniently. Need someone from Saskatoon, Canada on a task force with someone from Melbourne, Australia? No problem. They’re ready to hit the ground running. Even if they’ve never met.”

Step 3: Drive decision-making down

We’ve also adopted an intent-based leadership model to help everyone engage and contribute to the workplace at their full intellectual capacity. We push control and decision-making down, empowering team members at all levels. And then we deliver outcomes that our customers want. As a result, our people take responsibility and have the authority to rise to the occasion, even during times of change and uncertainty.

Descriptive, not aspirational

That sounds pretty good, but is it working? Brent think it is – and the data backs him up on that. We conducted a survey of our global tech workforce in November and December, and here are some of its findings:

  • 92 percent of respondents said they feel empowered to take responsibility and make decisions
  • 87 percent said it’s safe to speak up in our department
  • 95 percent said the people they work with are willing to help each other, even if it means doing something outside their usual activities.

“Those are numbers that speak for themselves,” Brent says. “Our culture has been adopted and embraced across our tech organization because we built it together – it’s not aspirational, it’s descriptive.”

Startup mentality, big company stability

Brent likes to say that we’ve established a startup culture at Nutrien without the risk and uncertainty that comes with working at an actual startup. A career at one of the largest ag tech companies in the world provides stability – as well as a broad range of opportunity.

“Our people get to work on well-resourced, cutting-edge projects across the ag inputs value chain, like autonomous potash equipment, remote-control bulldozers, next generation digital agronomy platforms and drone-enabled field monitoring,” he notes.

We’re convinced that employees of today want to do meaningful work that impacts and shapes society. Here, they can do that – and no matter the role, our people contribute to the incredibly important work of helping to feed the world.

“That’s a purpose that never gets old or irrelevant,” Brent says. “And I believe that at Nutrien, we’ve built a great environment for living it out.”