We had a fascinating discussion at the Wednesday, May 1 TechDebate in Chicago where we discussed the shaping of culture on technology teams. Glenn Keighley of OutcomeHealth was one of the participants in the discussion and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with him.
Examining Technology Team Culture
The term “culture” means different things to different people. Could you describe what it means to you?
GLENN: I like Edgar Schein’s definition. He submits that culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
In short, culture is the underlying social glue that informs interactions and behaviors within an organization and how people perceive these shared interactions and behaviors.
Have you experienced a particularly positive organizational culture at some point in your career?
GLENN: I was with Athenahealth for a period, and the organization really understood the critical value of actively testing, sampling, and grooming their culture toward a set of well-defined corporate values. I really respected and appreciated that the company’s leadership was very intentional about the creation of a strategic culture, and they expended the energy to maintain it.
Culture exists whether you participate in shaping it or not. It’s kind of like the air around you. You will have a culture that evolves organically if you don’t intentionally steer it. However, I believe a mark of a good organization is purposefully determining what it wants its culture to be, then putting in the work to get there.
One of the things that impressed me when I came to Outcome Health was the organic culture that had developed at the team level without intentional shaping. It was a very positive culture that included a lot of collaboration and we are currently building on that.
How can organizations go about shaping culture in a strategic manner?
GLENN: A lot of experts have done a lot of research to define frameworks for the evaluation of organizational culture. Of course, not all these professionals agree on what the right approach is, but a lot of times it makes sense to simply pick a model, work to apply it to your organization, and see how your organization stacks up through the lens of that model.
Regardless of the framework you select, you start by interrogating the culture. I like the Schein framework, and we’ve done group exercises using his approach at Outcome Health. Ideally, you get the entire organization, or a department that you’re focused on, in a room together. Then you go down the three levels of the Schein pyramid.
The top level is artifacts. Specifically, the tangible or observable elements of the organization like physical objects, processes, and/or behaviors. It’s up to the organization to define which artifacts are significant to the culture.
The next level down is espoused values, which are the stated values and philosophies of the organization. This often includes things like mission and corporate value statements.
But really, this is all a prelude to the final and most significant step of the exercise, which is when everybody talks about their underlying assumptions. This is where you ask team members to describe how the organization works. In other words, what are the key social contracts?
In a safe organization, team members will be honest. In some organizations, the culture has warped to the point where people will not feel comfortable describing these contracts.
After going through these steps, you step back as an organization and ask yourselves to identify good aspects you want to maintain and areas that are in need of change. Identifying real cultural characteristics allows you to decide what you really are dedicated to changing.
What is required of leadership to drive changes in company culture?
GLENN: First and foremost, it’s a willingness to engage and expend the effort. All organizations are top-down to a large degree. It’s the tone at the top, and the willingness of leadership to call for change, that matters. However, there must be an environment of safety where people feel comfortable holding each other accountable to the agreed-upon culture.
What gets in the way of organizations making the cultural changes they’d like to make?
GLENN: Change is hard. It requires effort, and it’s so easy to declare that culture is a priority, but get sidetracked by the practicalities of day-to-day issues. It’s easy to feel like we don’t have time for culture because it doesn’t have an obvious, immediate, and tangible benefit.
Do you find unique cultural tendencies among technology teams?
GLENN: You do see behaviors that are common to technology teams. People on technology teams bring a love of problem-solving. There’s also a curious mixture of egocentricity and cooperation.
Technology professionals want the team to choose the right solution, but they want their solution to be the right solution. For a team with a positive culture, these tensions are quite constructive. While significant contributions to software rarely happen entirely at the individual level, you want the individuals on the team to push to develop the best solutions.
Given how complex technology has become, organizations frequently need teams of teams. Every technology professional knows this and recognizes that in order to be successful, they must work collaboratively.
Have you ever experienced negative culture creeping into an organization or a team that you’ve managed or worked on? If so, how did you handle it?
GLENN: I’ve seen negativity largely in the form of fatalism. Particularly when a company has challenges, the remaining team can spend a lot of energy waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s a tough situation to be in, but the way I’ve handled it is to try to focus the team to work around what they can control because a lot of what drives negativity is a lack of being in control.
My company, Sphere Software (https://sphereinc.com/) , is a sponsor and organizer of Techdebates.org. Sphere is a technology consulting company. Everything we do is designed to accelerate your business, remove technical constraints and eliminate staffing bottlenecks.