Building a culture that matters

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It is said that bad culture will beat a good person every time. Conversely one of my favourite proverbs is, “as iron sharpens iron, so is a man the countenance of his friends.” In short you  come to reflect the culture and people around you. Being around people with depth and passion helps you make more consistently positive choices.

For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us – Yoda

When we get the culture bit of the puzzle right, it is the force of an organisation. People come together. Together they buy into something greater than themselves. They create things that delight and amaze customers and sustain the organisation in both good times and bad.

Culture is the heartbeat of the company. I’ve watched “successful” companies fail because the core was rotten. I have witnessed struggling companies pull through and soar. The difference was the soul of the company, the culture and values that sustained it.

Culture matters. So how do we build depth into our organisations.

Culture starts from the top

You Get the Culture You Allow – Tom Davidson

Another way I have heard this put is, “What leaders do in moderation, followers do to excess.”

A great negative example of this can be seen in firms like Enron, Uber and American Apparel in past years. The willful focus on success at the cost of a complete lack of moral compass lead these companies into dark times. One imploded, one saw the bankruptcy of the company and one the ousting of many senior executives and it remains to be seen whether the rot can be excised. These cultures were led from the top to the detriment of all. People of moral compass remain silent or move on.

The inverse of this should also be pointed out. Examples like Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta, giving up his seat for a mom. Here the CEO exemplified values of the company. The act wasn’t meant to be seen by the world, but communicated volumes internally and it wasn’t an unheard of act. There is a reason that Delta has performed consistently well on customer satisfaction surveys.

Elon Musk is another CEO that operates on a very flat structure and the organisations he creates reflect this. Earlier this year Elon Musk revealed that he doesn’t keep an office and that innovation is more highly valued to him than hierarchy.  His companies are innovative for a reason.

This isn’t to say it is all the CEO, it isn’t. They don’t work in a vacuum, the leadership team around them and down into the organisation is what helps guarantee their success. The leadership strategy that flows out into the organisation and helps creates the social and cultural norms that see growth or stagnation and silence.

Culture grows from the base

Culture beats a manager every time – Shaun McCarthy

Just as leaders influence culture, the culture influences leaders every bit as much. Agile transformation can start at a single team and focus on a viral uptake of the new way of working.

It’s often been said that if you give 1 team in 4 a kanban board, in 4 weeks all four teams will have one. In this case we talk practice versus culture, but the principles and the values behind the boards such a visibility, transparency and continuous improvement begin to flow out.

In a successful agile transformation the teams transform themselves and set a new cultural norm of openness and courage. If the management get out of the road, the culture shift is amazing. The groundswell helps move the needle towards a positive direction

When the movement from the base meets positive leadership from the top. Amazing things happen.

Vision directs culture

Without a vision the people walk in a dry place – Proverbs 29:18

A vision is so critical to setting the tone for culture. A great culture with no vision will end up being an aimless morass of bad faith and frustrated employees.

People want to believe in something greater than themselves. We, as humans, fight wars, we give selflessly, move mountains and change lives because we believe in something greater. The something might be “Queen and country” or “Make America Great!” or a faith in God, Allah or the circle of life. Still we give freely.

People CRAVE meaning and value in their lives. They will invest themselves in a vision and that investment means they invest themselves into the culture of the organisation. Give a vision to pull towards and petty gripes can fall away as people pull together. They aim to be better than what they are and to grow.

Conversely when vision is lacking, people will look for meaning in the things they can control. To quote Sheldon Cooper, “That’s my spot.” They will place barriers to change. They will do what they think is best or simply feed back the silence that is the one thing they can control. The culture suffers because culture is people and the people are suffering.

Give your teams a vision.

Values sustain culture

…we have the need for values programmed into us.. – Changing Minds

Culture is derived from the values we hold dear. When these are made visible others can catch the fire.

Change is inevitable, people move on, the organisation can grow or time changes. The heart of an organisation is its people. The values are what bind them together. Without periodic reminders of those values things slip.

It has been noted that when an organisation grows too rapidly it can lose what makes it special in the first place. The dilution of the values that drive the organisation leads to the loss. It is hard to keep the secret sauce flowing.

Defining the values drive an organisation, help new hires catch the vision and old hands stay true.

Over the years I have witnessed some horrific times in organisations. The ones that pull through intact are the one are the ones that know what they stand. The culture survives because the values provide a foundation of strength.

Values lay foundations that sustain.

Process supports culture

People over processes…

Culture is about people. The processes you have in place will either hinder or support your people.

Your processes facilitate communication up and down the line. They set up whether teams compete or work together. They determine whether people serve themselves or the vision of the company.

Think about reviews. If reviews are based on an individual writing x lines of code then your culture will focus on speed over all else. If your reviews focus on 360 degree feedback, team cohesiveness becomes much more important to the conversation.

A waterfall process that values each phase gate can lead to a culture of blame shifting, whereas a continual deployment environment where teams are responsible for their features soup to nuts facilitates a culture of pride in one’s work.

As Deming said, “a bad system beats a good person every time.” I also believe that good people supported by “good” systems produce amazing things.

Your actions make a difference

You have to walk your walk – Anon

I spend a lot of time watching people, and I always have. I know that people also watch me. They watch what I do and don’t do. They have an amazing ability to spot BS and read between the lines. People know fake and know patronizing. They know when I am walking my talk.

Perfection isn’t the goal. Integrity is. When people know that you are genuine and that you care, they will start to listen to you. They may not agree or follow through, but they listen. We say always by invitation. The invitation comes when people see something in you they don’t have.

You shift the culture needle every time you do what you say and show the culture you want to have. Your actions set the tone for your teams whether you’re a developer, PO, Scrum Master, Manager or coach. You make your world better or worse with what you say and do.

This is really the heart of the challenge.

How do you move the culture needle? What do you do? What actions will you take this week to see change happen in the hearts and minds around you?

 

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Brad Stokes

I am at heart a developer. I've been participating in an agile environment for a little over a year and a half. I've done waterfall and never want to return. I'm always good for a chat and willing to look at the agile world with openness and honesty.

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