There shouldn’t be an iron curtain or an iron throne when it comes to driving innovation at your organization
Our team recently had a conversation with an employee of a rapidly growing tech startup in New York. Though this person’s work is in Business Operations they were very interested in getting our perspective on certain communication issues their core and engineering teams had been working through. They mentioned to us that they were feeling as though there was an “iron curtain” between the engineering and core teams that was preventing overall productivity by decreasing team collaboration and morale. As stressful as this situation is, the sad truth is that it is far too common a problem that stems from a variety of factors that eventually boil down to engineering culture.
A more scholarly definition of culture could be that culture is a means in which a group of people organize the way they think, the things they believe, and the way they see the world so that they can achieve certain goals and take action they couldn’t otherwise achieve alone. That being said, culture can be understood as being comprised of four very important aspects: people, communication, action, and knowledge. Organizational culture is no different and in order to establish a healthy product and engineering culture, orgs must create alignment strategically across these four items.
Thinking about this employee’s specific situation, there is a very clear disconnect in these four areas within their team. In many of our workshops we help organizations research and make improvements to their product and engineering team culture. Below are some reflections that can help organizations looking to change.
Culture is created by people. The first question many teams should reflect on is Who feels responsible for the creation of your organization’s culture? Now while most may think a straightforward answer like “Our CTO or Director of Engineering or the Head of Product” is acceptable, the truth is that for most organizations, relying solely on only a few individuals to build an entire organizational culture is the source of the majority of problems. A healthy team culture is inclusive to people across the organization and many people should feel a sense of responsibility to shape it. If your organization is feeling as if there are silos preventing collaboration across teams there is clearly an issue with regards to the people who your current culture is inclusive or accessible to. Having an inclusive culture doesn’t mean that everyone is in a position to make the same actions or decisions, but it just means that there are areas that involve or impact them in a meaningful way. The key to the organization of people in general is communication.
Without communication, culture cannot be transferred and thus would cease to exist. We transfer culture through a variety of communicative means both formally (speech, writing) and informally (mannerisms, habits, etc). It is through communication that people can understand where they exist within the organization of a specific culture. How is your product and engineering culture communicated across your organization? A team that is inclusive in its culture would be equally inclusive in its communication and dialogue whereas one that doesn’t seek to maintain that level of openness may not be as transparent with communication. Communication really is a barometer of cultural health. By way of dialogue, different parties establish systems which manifest in the form of specified roles and functions but also shared ideals, values and goals. If there is a lack of alignment in communication you will see a lack of alignment in the specific actions of different team members.
One way in which we see culture manifest itself is within the actions taken by different members of an organization. What are the specific actions that are valued in your organization’s product and engineering culture? Healthy culture both motivates and facilitates individuals ability to achieve certain goals within their actions. If there is a specific set of actions that are not being handled routinely within the organization, there is the possibility that things are occurring that way as a result to cultural misalignment. Action is partly determined by the specifics of a task or function but also include prioritization and urgency. Our decision making process is determined within a cultural context, meaning culture determines the value we attribute to the specific actions we take and our knowledge of what is to be prioritized.
Both intentionally and unintentionally, culture creates knowledge. Culture exists as a result of historical decision making which creates information from which new action is derived. What systems or resources of knowledge exist to effectively transfer awareness of your product and engineering culture? It is important to reflect on past forms of knowledge and create systems to document knowledge presently for review in the future. People tend to believe that individual actions should automatically be aligned, but a persistent lack of knowledge will always interrupt this process. This is what makes onboarding, learning and development important investments for all organizations. These are moments wherein we are instilling cultural knowledge in an attempt to have new members of an organization become part of an established system or team. Missing the opportunity to effectively teach culture in these moments will lead to continued organizational dysfunctions that become costly.
Culture isn't static or stuck. It must recreate itself if the system in which it exists is rearranged. There is nothing that should keep organizations from developing healthier cultures if they are able to align their people, communication, action, and knowledge. Team personality, culture and creations reflect the type of history and experiences they’ve undergone. Ultimately we all decide the type of culture that we exist in and if organizations want to develop more effective team culture they must open up their perspective of who is chiefly responsible for the development of that culture. It’s up to all of us to push our organizations in the direction we want them to go, culture is what reinforces our belief in how we will make it happen.