Rebooting Culture

Rebooting Culture

Camille recalls just one thing from her first ever review as a lead developer: being told she had created a culture of fear. She spent the next few years figuring out how to lead, not assault – and how to help her team accomplish and enjoy coming to work. Watch her talk in full on Vimeo, or read on for a synopsis of the key things she learned during those years.

1. Help your people to move fast

This is one of the best things you can do as a lead. People – especially engineers – like to ship. They want to be able to say that they worked on tangible things, and on the things they like doing best. So when your process slows them down from doing that, they get upset.

Avoid creating unnecessary resource constraints such as feedback loops: they create an unwelcoming ‘us’ versus ‘them’ environment. Instead, try sending your team away with the challenge of finding ways to deploy faster. For example, you could suggest that they find ways to deploy daily. Everyday deployment works and makes it much easier for people to get work off their pile. It helps if you become impatient for the sake of your teams, and get them and yourself focused on making slow tasks faster by addressing the process bottlenecks.

2. Structure

Some like structure, others don’t (particularly start-ups). But structure lets you scale. Ultimately, good structure is what helps you get context quickly, and helps you answer what you should be doing – it serves as a guardrail.

In fact, when you break it down, structure is about transparency and learning. It comes out of learning in the sense that something happens – often a failure – and we react to it. As for transparency, if you don’t know where structure came from then you will question it. And while it is hard to create a perfect structure, one that has more transparent origins will always be stronger for it provides reasons to for your team to follow it. 

If failure, learning and transparency lead to stronger structures, what does that mean for you as a lead? When things fail, there is rarely a single root cause and a Learning Review is the best opportunity to interrogate the structures around a failure. But during these reviews, don’t tell people exactly how to do things. That’s micromanagement. If your instructions are detailed instructions on the ‘how’, instead of ‘what’, then you should be thinking about how to automate. In this scenario, ask yourself what can you put in the process so people don’t have to work hard to understand the process detail.

3.Relating to your people

This third point is a softer, but equally important element to helping your team succeed. The daily activities of a developer are bound up in more technical development work, so arguably there is less need for relationships over and above the functional interactions. Yet this is harmful once you are put in charge.

Here are some areas to help you relate to your people to create a more achieving work environment:

  • Be more vulnerable
    Vulnerability is important to healthy teams. It breeds a willingness to take risks and creates an environment where people are comfortable to stick their necks out. Google’s most important sign of a healthy team is psychological safety, for example. So absence of trust – in this sense the belief that people are trying to do their best and not undermine you politically – is a very baseline dysfunction. How do you build up vulnerability? Simple – learn to apologise. Guilt is a good emotion, so admit your mistakes and move on. If you don’t, guilt turns into shame, and shame is toxic. Practice apologising: you will be demonstrating to your team that it is ok to make errors and that they are working in an open environment.
  • Care (or at least pretend)
    You don’t have to be best friends with every team member, but show them you care. You can do this by asking questions, because whether or not you are actually interested, asking questions has the positive impact of actually making you care. Empathy is a learnable skill – it’s about remembering that everybody has feelings and that we are all in this together. Show your team you recognise this.
  • Replace conflict with curiosity
    Some of us love conflict and some of us hate it. But no matter where you stand, there needs to be healthy conflict in your teams to draw out opinions and data – you need to hear what people are thinking. You could see conflict in a different light, by replacing it with curiosity. Provide an environment of expressing opinions and asking questions. Even if you have an inherently negative person on the team, draw out the specifics of their opposition to ideas and help them articulate their criticism, as they are doing you a favour by providing input.
  • No more boring meetings
    Inability to have conflict shows up most in meetings. But teams have to communicate and to do this you have to get your team engaged. If your meetings can be defined as a group of people who have little to say until after a meeting, then something has to change. So, don’t tolerate dull meetings. This is not to say you should abandon them, unless of course they are pointless. It is down to you to draw the feelings of your people out. Don’t say “lets take that offline if something’s not on the agenda” – if people want to talk about it, then talk about it. Aim to create groups that enjoy interacting with one another: definitely don’t settle for an environment where your people can’t ask questions.

Camille feels that having these lessons in mind as you look to create your own culture of trust could help you shortcut the three years that it took her to turn things around.

Follow Camille on Twitter for more

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