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Creating a Culture

Posted on November 28th, 2014 in agile, management by Simon

As leaders when we ask teams to be autonomous we ask that they make decisions without our involvement. From this point overruling decisions that are made will only disempower and disillusion those teams and as a result re-centralise decision making. To prevent this it's important to ensure that we create a culture and our teams have a set of principles aligned to our own.

Starting with Beliefs

As much as we like to think of ourselves as analytical and measured beings, much of what we do is predetermined by our more primitive centres which are concerned with our emotions. The same mechanisms that are at play when we seek examples to reaffirm our faith to God, or when we choose sides in a PlayStation vs Xbox debate or we find the positives in an IOS vs Android comparison are also at play in our work life. Our analytical mind is seeking to reconcile our emotional responses with new stimulus that is either aligned or contrary to our beliefs. Our beliefs are the strongest factor here, so we dig our heels in and fight our position. The way we make decisions based on primarily our emotions, and not our analytical skills, is explored in great detail in the excellent Descarte's Error by Antonio Damasio (1994).

In a work setting we can have some powerful emotions at play. Positive emotions like excitement, elation and satisfaction when things are going well or negative emotions like stress, shame and fear when things are going badly or there are threats to the status quo. Negative emotions are the more powerful than positive and are usually associated with Somatic Markers, which are bodily responses to situations such as the aforementioned fear.

That being said, being able to positively affect and influence the emotional state of a team is an extremely effective way to achieve success.

Finally, now we have established that threatening belief structures leads to combative responses, we either want to align team member beliefs or assemble those with those beliefs already in place. In OO development we usually attempt to do that by recruiting for Agile, SOLID and TDD which bring beliefs such as quality first, discipline, accountability and a desire to continuously seek improvement.

A concrete example of this can be seen in the transformation of the Commonwealth Bank within the Australian banking sector, they believe and have thrived by believing:

  • Core banking affords our customers a safer, simpler way of banking, anywhere, anytime and in real-time
  • Core banking is a source of competitive advantage, enabling our agility and innovation at the edge
  • Banking is being redefined by devices and technology – we aim to enable our customers to bank on their terms
  • We will continue to innovate with the aim of bringing new and improved experiences to our customers
  • Core banking and online underpin our brand differentiation and advantage

This gives their teams focus and direction. Source: Commonwealth Bank Shareholder Presentations and Speeches.

Setting Principles at the Beginning

A wise man once gave me this piece of advice:

Start how you intend to finish.

The theory goes that people form a lasting first impression of you and changing this impression is much harder than setting it from the start. Think of the team beliefs and principles you want, then live to them from day 1. You will much of the time be inheriting an existing team although you will be a new start for them.

A good starting point to identifying your principles is to find the list of items you won't compromise on. These have to be phrased in the context of the organisation, such as the beliefs listed above, but should be more specific and cover "how" your team will operate.

Your beliefs and your principles set your culture.