Growing team culture

Healthy team culture is difficult and it is getting harder. It requires active attention to planning and a great deal of work. Your culture is a living thing. It evolves and changes in hard to define ways.

People talk about hiring for culture fit. But culture fit is static. It is a still photo used to describe a living being. It captures some aspects of your team from a moment in time, but not everything. And it is never up to date. Instead, you need to focus on culture growth.

Healthy cultures take work

We all communicate with each other and should learn about and embrace Nonviolent Communication Principles They are well worth the time to learn.

Bikeshedding is when you focus on trivial issues rather than solving the issue at hand, and is a symptom of poor culture, If you spend more time talking about what colour the bike shed should be, rather than actually painting it to protect it from the elements, you have an issue.

You want to have open conversations about how you do stuff. You want people to exchange and share knowledge, and socially interact with one another. You don't all have to be best buddies. Everybody doesn't need to go to the pub or knit together or whatever hobbies people have, but small talk is important. Conversations are important. Getting to know the people you work with is important.


Teams with a healthy culture trust each other. They trust their members to have autonomy. They trust their people to be responsible and mature. The people within a healthy culture feel secure in their position. They feel stable. They feel safe. They feel welcomed, and they feel that they have the support of their management.


They also respect each other. Psychological safety is the big thing that was uncovered by Google's research into high-performing teams. Psychological safety turned out to be the number one quality teams need to perform. It didn't matter how many brains they had, how many PhDs they had, or the size of the team. What mattered was that people felt safe, that they didn't fear asking questions. That they were able to manage their egos and work together. That they felt they were in a safe place to be themselves. And didn't fear being wrong.


Related to that, healthy cultures accept one another. At this point we don't need to talk about why diverse teams are beneficial. It should just be a given, not just about it being the right thing to do, but about the fact that this actually helps your business.

Having that degree of acceptance of people from different backgrounds and with different experiences, it helps people feel safe. It helps people feel stable. It helps people feel that they are a part of this team, and this thing that is happening together.

At the moment we particularly need to be wary of work-life balance and mental health. People work from home a lot more. People live and work in isolation. It is important that as a leader, you pay attention to that, keep in touch with your people, and make sure they are okay.

We also need to ensure that we respect that they need some space for distraction-free work time and distraction-free workspaces. That can be really hard when people are in lock-downs and such.

How do we measure it?

How do we know that we have a healthy culture? The simplest measure is: are you making progress toward shared goals? Are you delivering stuff? Whatever it is that your people need to deliver, whatever they do. And then how long does it take? These are things that you can measure. These are things that you can make a note of, and do a historical analysis on, and pay attention to trends to understand has it gone up or down? Has it gotten worse during COVID? Has it gotten better during COVID? Are your people being productive?

Instead of "happy", think about them being competent and satisfied in their work, feeling content about what they do, and feeling satisfied. Are they producing? They don't have to be shouting and singing from the rooftops. Are they part of the team and contributing, and feeling good about it because it is the together bit that counts. That is what makes it part of a culture that influences how we work together.


What rituals do good teams follow? What rituals enable healthy teams? For example, how you handle feedback, both positive and corrective for yourself, within the team, as part of the culture.

Regular retrospectives are really important. You need to concentrate on the problems, not the people. You should address the issues early and keep the conversations transparent. There are many formats to good retrospective sessions You can do a retro every single week. People think that retros take a long time, but if you do them regularly, they can be run in 30 minutes.

Code previews can start from sitting down and discussing the work with somebody before writing any code. "I think I know how to solve this ticket. I think I know what code to write to deliver this thing, but I want to sound it out with you and talk about it, just in case I've misunderstood the issue." You can do that with any piece of work, have that conversation with somebody. It shares context. It shares information. It gives you something to riff on later. It gives you a chance to check your understanding of it. It is a really useful thing to do for any kind of work.

Pairing is the same. Pairing is not just for programmers. It can be for everybody. It can be done on any piece of work. Sit down, grab somebody. Grab another brain to write the marketing plan. Grab another brain to work out your hiring strategy or your hiring process.

Same as with the last two rituals, while doing code reviews, we should ask questions and offer suggestions. When people critique another person's work by asking questions, offering suggestions, and talking about the work itself, rather than talking about the author, it is a great example of a healthy culture.

Team-working agreements are one of our favourite processes. At the start of a project, sit and talk about your roles and responsibilities. Talk about deadlines. Talk about timings. For example, when do we do our work? When will we have meetings? When makes sense? "Oh, Bob has to leave at three to pick up his kids. Cool. We won't do any meetings after three". Having those conversations, and working that out with the team ahead of time, sets up expectations, and allows everybody to understand whether those expectations are being met. Which then when they are not, allows you to have a more productive conversation.

Teams are immutable

Every time we change a team, it effectively becomes a new team. Teams get bigger, they get smaller, they change. People move roles. This changes the communication patterns between team members. It changes the way people interact. When removing one person from the team, suddenly there is one less person to talk to. And the two people who didn't use to have to talk to each other as much now have to. And maybe that goes really well. Maybe it doesn't. Something also changes when you add a new person. People have to start talking to them, and that changes the communication patterns again.

When you put somebody in charge of a team, you need to provide them with mentorship. You need to provide them with training and help them. If you have a productive team that is doing well, think about moving the work to them, rather than reforming a new team around the work. You reward people for having done a good job of working well as a team and delivering by giving them more work to do and showing that they can do that well too.

A thing to really be conscious of is the feedback loop for all of these. Changing culture, improving teams, mentoring people. These things take so much longer than running a test suite. It takes a long time to develop the patterns and an understanding of what is happening. You need to make sure feedback is regular and frequent. One-on-ones should be frequent, instead of once a month, or once every three months.

You should run retrospectives for teams processes, not just sprints or projects. Maybe not as often as every week, but frequent enough.

Sometimes the division between leading and doing gets mashed up, and it is difficult to lead while doing and vice versa. When you have people who are performing split or multiple roles (which is perfectly fine) you need to be aware of it, and it is worth recognising that. Admitting a thing is happening and discussing it openly can be enough acknowledgement to start improving it. You need to talk about it so that you can check that people are doing okay. Is one day a week enough to lead a team of eight people? Maybe. Maybe not. Is four days worth of programming work or design work too much to expect from somebody who is leading a team of eight people? Maybe... It is a conversation you need to have, and you can only have it if you are aware it is happening.

When bringing in new team members

You have just changed the team again, and it is a brand new team. The new member needs support, but so does the team. You need to look at the state of your documentation. A sherpa/buddy model is fantastic because as the new person, you know that there is someone who is always interruptible for the next week or month. Somebody whose job it is to make sure you get unstuck as quickly as possible, no matter what they are doing. And yes, their work will take a hit, but bringing on a new team member is part of the work.

Ensure that the new person has regular one-on-ones, and ensure that there is socialisation time. Again, while people are working in remote distributed teams and are isolated, you need to make sure that there are particular social activities too. Like you are allowed to book a meeting that is just for hangout time. You can do that. We can do whatever we want. Bring people in for social easing, even before they start employment, if you can. A cool way to show people are excited to have you join the company is to invite you to a little social gathering, where the new person gets to meet people, and people tell you about themselves, and tell you about why they love the company. It is a great way to start a working relationship.

Key points

  • Over-communicate in public.
  • Create rituals that encourage communication and sharing.
  • And when these things don't work or they don't work as well as you want: keep iterating, keep learning, and keep delivering new things to improve and grow your culture.

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