Behind any competent and successful software, there is a story of empowered, talented, and hardworking people, who are working in an awesome culture.
But, as the saying goes, it only takes ‘one bad apple to spoil the barrel’, the same can be said for the workplace. On many occasions, I have seen teams crumble, where one person is not performing and is constantly causing problems.
When setting up an engineering centre of excellence, culture was at the heart of all that we did. If we hired, we only hired those that fit the culture that we were trying to build i.e. constructive not destructive criticism — the advantage was that those who did not fit the mould left as it was not the right fit for either of the parties involved.
The interview routine was particularly key to hiring with the right culture in mind, for instance asking questions around what the candidate would deem as a good culture would mean that we only hired people who answered in a way which emphasised the importance of culture. One example that stood out for me was one candidate who used the phrase ‘I would describe my leadership style as being the last one to eat and putting others first’, this one statement showcased to me that this leader would be a perfect fit.
It is important to set a team up for success right from the get go. This can be done by having clear mantras and values.
Some Mantras I have used for Quality Assurance (QA) teams:
If it doesn’t work fully to customer requirements, do not ship it.
Test high-risk areas.
Shift testing left, defects are cheaper when found early.
Prevention rather than detection.
Values are equally as important:
For me, mantras and values should be the starting point for the team. When the basic components are being met it’s time to add specific points around ‘What culture do you want?’ and ‘What behaviors do you want?.’
How did we ensure these mantras and values were being lived and breathed by the team? One exercise which I was passionate about was getting a piece of paper and we all brainstormed what values and mantras we wanted, we then signed this sheet and anyone new coming into the team did exactly the same. This built a culture of belonging, even with remote teams a PowerPoint slide could have the same impact.
Reflecting on environments where it feels toxic, micromanaged, and there’s no teamwork — do you remember any happy customers? Happy environments generally churn out amazing work, but why? Because the culture is one of happiness.
Personally my best work has come from a situation of happiness and enjoyment, also if it’s something that I am passionate about it’s a double bonus. From experience we held a hackathon and I remember some of the best ideas came from working with people that you got on with and it really pushed my passion for accessibility, again this stemmed from a simple idea of an event where you work together.
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Blameless problem solving
Open to feedback
Progresses the team, not just themselves
Culture shapes work enjoyment, work relationships, and work processes.
To ensure that good behaviours are the pillars of the building, it is key that those who are not adhering to the good behaviours are told of their impact in a constructive, not destructive way.
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Communities of Practice (CoP) — These are sessions of interest, where the aim is learning an area of mutual interest, which can span multiple team disciplinaries. What is key is that membership is not voluntary.
Where there is learning, there is always an improvement in team culture. Even learning new skills together can build a bond between the team. I have seen communities around ‘what is automation testing’ and it has helped to get engineering, product, quality assurance to understand automated testing better and this meant that everyone in the team could support and understand this interesting area.
Should you give CoP’s a try? Yes! They are easy to set up and will give maximum benefit to your culture.
Another aspect of a high-performing team is the leadership approach. I have been very careful to say ‘leadership’ rather than management. Why? As leaders are those members who we remember when reflecting on our careers, ultimately leaders exist in an awesome culture.
In the past, I have seen many managers who act like army generals and sit on a comfy chair, and exercise their power to get something done. How was the culture in those teams? Pretty awful, and for me, that is why most members were low-performing.
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As per the above, in the great cultural environments that I have worked in — I have always seen leaders rather than managers. I know who I would rather work for! Who would you rather work for?
Cultural improvement takes time, though we can all work hard to make it a better place to work. I’m an avid grower of vegetables and take a humble tomato plant, with nutritious soil, water being plentiful and the right amount of sunlight, you will have tomatoes to fill a bucket. People are similar, in the right environments they will flourish and as a leader it will be one of your proudest achievements!
Let’s summarize 5 key points from this article:
Mantras and values will shape your culture and behaviors
One bad apple can spoil a barrel — toxic behavior will turn a positive culture into a negative one in an instance.
Communities of practice will really help to push your culture in the right direction. Giving people an opportunity to learn more skills will always be welcomed by a team.
Leaders will also drive cultural improvement — a team that is micromanaged will not allow members to grow and this will not help your culture.
Cultural improvement takes time — though it will be worth all of the wait, just like butter paneer, if made from scratch (my favorite).