Culture at all levels

10th birthday celebrations.jpeg

I was at a Saturday meetup recently, the 10th birthday of the Melbourne Scrum and Agile user group. 10 years since this group came together, many conferences have spawned from the group of over 4,000 members of what must be one of the most enduring Agile communities in Melbourne.  

At the end of a great day of learning and sharing, various people from the Agile community in Melbourne reflected on the years that had past since the meetup began, and the state of Agile since then.  

In a summarising 'open question' session facilitated by Martin Kearns -The original founder of the meetup, I was asked the question by Shaun Wilde “How important is Culture?” GREAT question, and not a straightforward answer. (I know because I had fluffed it up in an interview once before by Andy Kelk for his F.E.E.L podcast). I attempted an answer, something like “All the levels of important, like, there is nothing more important, but it’s also a dynamic thing and easier to change than you may think”.  

I was inspired to write this blog about it, I want to be on-record about all the levels of importance I think there are of the culture of teams and companies.  

You can hire for Culture Fit and many people I know actively state this, individually for teams and more broadly for the company. A ‘Culture Fit’ hiring policy means that we will judge VALUES and BEHAVIOURS more than the skills that you walk in the door with. Sounds pretty straightforward but hiring is a wildly subjective thing, and people bring so much of their bias into the judgement of other people’s values and behaviours that I can’t really believe anyone is hiring for a generic Culture Fit to their company. At best, you can hire for ‘Hey YOUR Culture seems to fit MY Culture pretty nicely and that’s good enough’. You can mitigate some of this bias by getting more people and diverse opinions involved in the appraisal of Culture Fit, and you probably should.  

In my observations culture is an organic thing, more of a potion than a group of shared statements. By this I mean that culture is more fluid, and as new people are added to the mix a new potion is brewed. You can observe this at a micro level if you’ve ever been asked to get into a small group to complete a task. That group now has a culture, it might not be stated or even implied but each person can impact, or choose not to impact, the way this group will perform. Not only does Janet have the power to bring her awesome skills to the group for problem solving, she may also dampen them down if she doesn’t feel safe to be herself. Peter may have a very strong personality that could make solid and directive decisions but he could have learned over the years to listen to others more and only exhibit these traits when deadlines become critical.  

In our fluid potion of culture, we can also be vulnerable to poisons. Many of us would have seen the devastation that can result when a "rotten apple" personality is added into the mix. Previous harmony and high performance may be replaced with competition and short term thinking that is destructive to a team's culture. However, the flavour of the mix is also in the eye of the beholder. When someone external to the team views the team’s results they may view it as ‘just what that team needed, a good kick up the bum’. And is there really such a thing as a "rotten apple" or is it just a person who doesn’t fit? It all seems very fragile.  

I then waffled on to fluff up the next question from Shaun which was “What IS Culture?”  

Here is my waffle in motion

Here is my waffle in motion

I searched my memory hard and fast and did a great deal of looking at the ceiling for the answer to this one. Previous attempts had included ‘It’s Mabo’ and on the day I think I said something like ‘The way we do things around here’.  

The Way We Do Things Around Here, can be written down in a working agreement, can be toured to new comers to the team and can be observed in daily interactions of the team. Much of it is codified into process, policy and working procedures. It’s the standards that are around you and the standards that you choose to walk past without addressing. But once again it’s more elastic than we might believe. What do I mean by that because I just said it was fragile….? 

Culture has a certain amount of resilience to it, and it’s held together by the people who are in it, not the documents, procedures and standards although they themselves provide re-enforcement for it. For example, you can swap an overly governed process with a light document and decision making alternative, this will bring speed and a different feeling to the team. And if the team have the power to implement ideas like this then more ideas are likely to come. The team will defend their ability to keep making improvements to themselves and attend to the extension and maintenance of their codification, they are unlikely to throw out all standards wholesale, they will just change it to suit them. A team with no power or resilience however, will be reduced to following current procedure.  

You may think that leadership plays a critical part to how culture grows in a team and I would agree with you to a point. A great leader creates the safety for Janet to express her full skill set in her daily work, for Peter to continue having the time and space to learn deep listening and to know when to dial up his strong decisions, however I will repeat my statement from paragraph 3, “it’s easier to change than you may think”. What I mean by that, is that YOU can bring a change to culture yourself. We all can. It doesn’t have to be a leader or a set of Important-Offsite-Quarterly-Meetings where Execs agree a new direction that catalyses a better Culture in your team. You can do it. 

At the birthday event, during the lunch break, some curious people came and talked to me about their situation at their companies and some of the difficulties they were experiencing. With a few other community people we talked through some ideas of how to change and effect that in a positive way. I wondered if I was being responsible giving out advice to people who were clearly in teams that were not empowered and had some challenging negative leadership behaviours around them. But I do truly believe that we can all do more than we think is possible when it comes to bringing positive culture to our teams. To quote David Marquet - there is no dress rehearsal for your life, you’re in it, you may as well have a good go. Perhaps that’s my Aussie rephrasing, but you know what I’m saying here.  

We have the choice every day we come to work to show up authentically, make things better for the people around us, to add a little magic into the culture-potion of the teams we swim with and to stretch the elastic of standards a little more in a good direction. We don’t show up as victims of the current culture we are instead part of it. If we have great leaders we will feel safe to make it as positive as we can, OR if we can be brave and demonstrate those behaviours and values, we’ll also add to the positivity around us.  

Which brings me to my final conclusion on culture which is The Cup. The Cup is something we have inside us and feeds us so we can feel brave on the tough days, and find resilience when challenges come. You need to keep Your Cup full of the positive stuff, and find out where Your Well is, to fill Your Cup. That day my Well was the 10th Birthday bash meetup. It was a Saturday, I was tired from a big week, I could have been with my family relaxing, but instead I gathered with a group of like minded people to reinforce our values, behaviours, ideas and beliefs. The Well was so powerful I felt brave enough to ask a challenging question in the group, the interactions of the day had created high amounts of safety for me to do so easily. A great Blog Article by Michelle Playfair was created off the back of the question I asked her. And that’s the thing about positive culture, it has a multiplier effect. Just as a rotten apple has a devastating impact, positive culture sets off a chain of positivity, yet another level to appreciate culture on, above being great for your team. Many other authentic conversations flowed freely in the open question session, that was the result of the Cultural Standard that had been created that day.  

It filled my Cup and I left energised not tired. I felt brave enough to deal with challenges and full enough of good things, that bad things could only drain my cup a little.  

It’s our responsibility, to find our Well, fill our Cup and then show up every day like it’s not a dress rehearsal, we can then catalyse all the levels of better Culture in our teams.  

Alexandra Stokes