Team culture

June 19, 2013

TL;DR: Team culture is the backbone of your success

Few weeks ago, as I was about to leave the company I had been working for for the last 6 years, I came to the idea of writing an article about the thing I am the most proud of having built these last years : my team (you will see I was not the only one to contribute to it, they did the most part). But the question, that could sound silly at first is: what defines a team ? What does it take for a group of people to become a successful team ?

I have one answer to these questions: a team culture. But then you could ask me, and you would be right: but what is a team culture ? I like the definition I have found of team culture in Team Geek1: “it’s a set of shared experiences, values, and goals that is unique to every engineering team we’ve ever been on or observed.”. I hope this article will bring me the opportunity to write down my vision on this topic.

The team culture is what defines your team. It is the cement that will make it strong when bad things happen and that will make it so much fun to work with. Because you know how important fun at work is. I cannot imagine going to work in a place where I spend more time than the time I spend with my own kids and my wife, without having fun. If you are not happy at work and if you have the luxury to be able to change job easily, I think you should not be asking yourself the question twice. Life is too short. So is having fun the only thing needed to build a team culture ? I guess that if it would be that easy I would not be bothering you with such an article (remember, life is too short).

How my team’s culture grew

In fact it is quite an organic process as Peopleware noticed. You try things, sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail but either case you learn and it becomes a part of your culture because you shared the experience. So I will try to show you what I see as my team’s culture.

First of all, what radically changed part of my team culture and how the team could alter it to really make its own (and not mine), was starting using Agile methodology (inspired from Scrum) about 3 years ago. That was one of my goal when introducing the methodology and I did not think it would work so great. Before that time, I was assigning work to my team members quite individually (or make themselves pick work but with no, or a little, team vision). My goal with Scrum was to make my team more mature (in a good sense), meaning more capable to handle the job without my help because I knew it could. I had a team composed of a lot of introvert people (myself included), so that was quite hard at the beginning to get them feel that they were in charge of their own management. I remember the morning meetings in the first few months where I had to give people their post-its tasks because they did not do it by themselves. 3 years later, I could skip morning meetings without worrying about it. They embraced the methodology, they now make it evolve sprint after sprint, debrief meeting after debrief meeting (they now come in debrief meetings not only with problems when some arise, but with solutions and it is such a pleasure for me).

Next, we had a team lunch every week, same day (the fact that it is a fixed day is an information about the culture too).

Next, we used a lot our dedicated chat room. It was a place where work questions and jokes (many private jokes, that is part of our culture too) are mixed. We just had to be careful not to interrupt people’s work. When a newcomer arrived on the team we tried to go easy on the jokes at first :)

Finally, and that is what defined us the most, we worshipped high quality in the software we made. The quality processes we set up (lot of testing, systematic code reviews) was a big part of our “signature”, and the way we had inclined ourselves to follow the rules was quite astonishing. For example, during a Scrum sprint, every time someone broke a build he scored a point. The one with the most points at the end of the sprint paid for pastries for the next planning meeting. And that was not a game I imposed. I suggested them the idea and they were ok to try it. Now I think they loved it, mainly when everybody in the team had 0 points and then the product owner team paid the pastries (the PO team proposed this last rule by themselves, thanks to them, they took a great part of my team growing process too). Some people in the company told us sometimes that we were a little extremist on these quality processes. While accepting this point of view, we still stood on these rules (we had pretty strong arguments to). They made us what we were (maybe in another company we would have had a completely different culture).

Hire right

As many strong other values (like trust for example), team culture is much easier to kill than to build. That is why in every good management book I have read (Peopleware, Team Geek, etc) you will not find an easy recipe to build/grow a successful team but you will mostly find some common threats that will endanger you team and how to try to avoid them. The major threats I came to deal with were the following ones: upper management and hiring new people. I will mostly talk about the hiring risk because I think everybody knows what can sometimes come from upper management that I will not need to explain this. So what about hiring new people being such a risk for a team ? Isn’t that cool to hire people ? Oh man it is so cool. Few years ago, I did not think I would enjoy the exercise. I was wrong. So what is the matter ? The matter is (and greatly explained in Team Geek & video), you cannot afford to hire someone that will ruin your team culture. Because as strong as your team can be from the outside, it maybe could not resist an internal threat. I have seen it a few times and, men, that is not pretty.

So how do you prevent this risk, how do you know the new rocky player in your team will not crush your team down ? Few advices from my experience. First of all, try to hire from your network (in the large sense, yours and your team’s), because some of them probably already share, for the most part, your team culture.

Then, if you have an job advertisement to write, try to be imaginative to make your team culture starting to reflect. Candidates must be able to glimpse the culture and to see if they will fit in. For example, add photos, videos, and mostly have fun writing it (remember fun ?). Make your team review it as if they were applying for the job. After all, aren’t they in the best position to judge it ?

Next come the interviews. My interviews commonly last 2 hours with the following scenario: 20 minutes of mutual presentation, 40 minutes where I leave the candidate alone with a technical test we designed and then 1 hour of debriefing. The last hour is the most interesting part of the interview. Of course if the candidate is wrong all along about the technical test, he will not be eligible to the job, but that is not the subject here. So what happens in this last hour that will tell me whether the candidate is good for the job ? In fact he needs to be good for my team. It not about protectionism, it is good caring, because as a team leader your sole goal is supposed to protect your team and make it grow (not necessarily in numbers). So how do I try to take a good decision? First, if I could take one hiring advice from Joël Spolsky it would be this one: “If you have any doubts whatsoever, No Hire.”. If you do not see him fit the team for whatever reason, no hire. You can (should?) also make your team see the candidate. After all, they will spend more time with him than with you if you hire him. But when you hire someone you expect him to participate to the team culture, being part of the team. So, as a team leader, when a new member arrives in the team, you have to be cautious about it. The team have to be open-minded to see the newcomer as an opportunity to grow and learn from him. The last thing you want is a team folded on itself.

Conclusion

During the past few years I think my team and myself did a pretty good job building our culture, making it evolve and sticking to it when necessary. I hope that in my new job I will achieve the same thing (surely not taking the same form, with different company, context and people). And most importantly, beware of the teamicide, it could happen faster than you think.

This article is dedicated to my team. I hope the best for you, take care and hope I have brought to you as much as you brought to me.

  1. Team Geek: A Software Developer’s Guide to Working Well with Others 

Comments

Kuikui on June 19, 2013 14:30

Is each staff member responsible for the team culture or is that the leader’s job ? In other words, what do you think will happen when the leader leaves ?

Kuikui on June 19, 2013 19:51

Judging by our recent experience it seems that it’s not what happenned to us. Do you think we failed ? Or do you think these consequences were due to external causes? (I’m offering you a way out :-) ?

ratibus on January 25, 2014 14:47

I honestly do not think we failed. But external changes within the company prevent the team from staying.

ratibus on June 19, 2013 15:08

Every member is responsible whether they are the leader or not. It’s not about the leader’s culture, it’s the team culture and that is what makes all the difference. So when the leader leaves the culture must survive. As I said the culture is organic. It is not static. So the leader’s leaving may change the team’s culture but it’s not a problem as long as the team has its own culture. Quote from Peopleware, chapter 19 (The black team) :

Over time, members of the team moved on one at a time to other things. Since the team function was important to the company, departing members were replaced immediately. This continued until finally there wasn’t a single member left of the original group. But there was still a Black Team. The team survived the loss of all its original staff, and it emerged with its energy and its personality intact.

S. Haïm-Lubczanski on June 25, 2013 15:02

Is the “geek culture” (ie comics like XKCD or SMBC) part of a culture team, when you grow a team, or is this a bonus, or something really out of the team culture ?

ratibus on January 25, 2014 14:50

It depends on the team. If they share a common interest in any topic it can become part of the culture.

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Proud father of two, I am a team leader, specialized in solving people problems with (mostly) technical responses.