Building a modern team culture
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.Peter Drucker
Building the right organizational culture is the most important thing you can do. The right organizational culture:
- Guides everyday interactions between the people on your team
- Creates an environment where people are happy to come to work
- Helps with recruiting and retention
- Increases team performance because everyone is aligned around common goals and values
- Creates an inclusive environment
- Determines how leadership and teams react to failures and setbacks
Culture is built and sustained intentionally. Don’t expect to organically grow into the culture you want.
Understand the connection between culture and performance
The 2014 State of DevOps Report did the research to identify a predictive link between organizational culture and performance. The cultural norms and practices that characterize high-trust organizations — good information flow, cross-functional collaboration, shared responsibilities, learning from failures, and encouragement of new ideas — correlate strongly with high performance.
Westrum provides a useful typology that contrasts the qualities of three different types of organizational culture:
|Power oriented||Rule oriented||Performance oriented|
|Low cooperation||Modest cooperation||High cooperation|
|Messengers shot||Messengers neglected||Messengers trained|
|Responsibilities shirked||Narrow responsibilities||Risks are shared|
|Bridging discouraged||Bridging tolerated||Bridging encouraged|
|Failure leads to scapegoating||Failure leads to justice||Failure leads to inquiry|
|Novelty crushed||Novelty leads to problems||Novelty implemented|
Most traditional government organizations tend to be bureaucratic. However, digital teams thrive in generative cultures, which allow for innovation and experimentation.
Strive for a generative culture
re:Work from Google identifies five characteristics of effective teams, and these all support a generative organizational culture:
- Psychological safety — team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other
- Dependability — team members get things done on time and meet the high bar for excellence
- Structure and clarity — team members have clear roles, plans, and goals
- Meaning — work is personally important to team members
- Impact — team members think their work matters and creates change
Next, we’ll break down the basics of encouraging these cultural characteristics.
While all aspects of culture start at the top, creating a psychologically-safe environment is something only leadership can do. Here are some of the key actions for building psychological safety:
Demonstrate willingness to try-fail-learn. The best signal leadership can send to encourage experimentation is taking failures in stride. Provide executive air cover for experiments and new ideas. Be prepared to defend the actions of your team to others in your organization. Don’t assign blame. Instead, encourage teams to learn from failures. Understand that not all innovation leads to success. If necessary, work with teams to design smaller experiments with reduced impact.
Require blameless retrospectives. Empower teams to make changes in how they work. It’s important to act on all follow-ups from retrospectives. Through action, you’ll show that learning from retrospectives is important to you.
Learn how to run an agile retrospective by reading this guide from Atlassian.
During meetings and workshops, encourage all voices to be heard. Work through how you might implement a suggestion, rather than rejecting it immediately. Discourage interruptions. Create multiple avenues for people to contribute. For example, some people may not feel comfortable speaking up, but might be happy to write some thoughts down on a post-it.
Create opportunities for feedback. Regularly ask for feedback through employee surveys. Ask for feedback on organizational initiatives and on leadership. Act on the feedback you receive. Your employees will participate when they see that their opinions have value and result in change. Create mechanisms for anonymous feedback as well. Not everyone is going to feel comfortable being candid with feedback.
Dependability is an individual trait. As a team member, you have to personally be dependable. As a leader, you have to support and encourage dependable behavior.
Encourage employees to be accountable and responsible for their actions. Team members shouldn’t need to fear criticism or censure when they own their actions. Create an environment where team members are supported when they accept responsibility for their actions.
Help the team manage commitments. As a leader, your job is to ensure that external deadlines are realistic. Teams that are strapped for time will miss deadlines and produce low-quality work. Planning should always take into account the velocity of the team and respect work-life boundaries.
Remove blockers and distractions. To help team members get things done on time, remove any blockers they encounter. Constantly pave the way for a team to be productive. Attend standup meetings to understand daily blockers. Similarly, remove distractions in the workplace. Eliminate distractions such as noise and unnecessary meetings.
Be clear about expectations. Be clear about your expectations of employees. Specify and document expectations around accountability, ownership, and dependability. This should include expectations around technical excellence. Everyone on your team should understand the quality of work they are expected to produce and how that quality will be measured.
Structure and clarity
Clarify and document roles. Each team member should understand their role in the organization and on their team. Document the definition and boundaries for each role. In smaller teams, everyone does everything. As your teams grow, role definitions will provide structure and clarity.
Help set and achieve goals. Personal growth is important for employee retention. People will stay in their jobs if they know that they’re learning and growing. Help each team member set goals for what they personally want to achieve. Then do your best to create opportunities for people to meet their goals.
Teams should also collectively set goals and support each other to achieve them. The Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) framework from Google works well to set goals and track progress at multiple levels in your organization. OKRs help align individual and team goals with organization goals. Each goal should have an associated plan on how to achieve it.
Learn more about how the U.K. Government Digital Service uses OKRs on GOV.UK website.
Meaning and impact
Remind people of the mission. Have a clear and concise mission, and include vision and values statements on posters in your physical space. The constant reminder is important so that teams don’t forget the larger picture.
Examples of well-designed posters
Build with shared empathy. To understand the potential impact of their work, encourage everyone on the team to participate in research/discovery work. By interacting with users, the team will understand the problem they’re trying to solve and the impact that problem has on everyday lives.
See the impact of the work. Have everyone on the team participate in usability tests to observe how their solution makes things easier for users. Write frequently about the impact of the work that you’re doing. This storytelling is important, both within the team and across your organization.
Assign people to projects they’re passionate about. Team members who are passionate about a particular topic will be excited about the work they do — and be more productive. When you can, give people a choice by asking them which projects they care about and would like to work on.
Create a welcoming and inclusive environment
A welcoming and inclusive culture empowers people to provide outstanding public service.
Create and enforce a Code of Conduct
A Code of Conduct puts into writing how you expect people to behave in the workplace and at work events. It codifies your commitment to an inclusive environment. Create a documented process for enforcing the Code of Conduct and an anonymous process for reporting violations of the Code.
18F has a Code of Conduct that you can adopt and modify as necessary.
Empower people to speak up
Create a community where everyone feels empowered to speak up. It’s useful to do this in a town hall setting, as well as in 1-on-1’s. Create office hours for people to drop in and chat about anything. And create an anonymous feedback forum so that those who are uncomfortable bringing up issues in person can do so anonymously.
Use inclusive language in all communications
As we build government services, we want to ensure they are accessible and welcoming to everyone who needs to use them. Inclusive language helps to be more accurate and build trust with our users.
Use inclusive language in all communications with your organization and the services you build. These resources can help:
- This inclusive content guide from 18F is short and easy to internalize for all communications.
- The Ontario Digital Service has a useful inclusive design toolkit available online.
Provide training on unconscious bias
Unconscious bias is “learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, and able to influence behavior” (see the full Wikipedia entry).
Everyone has these biases.
Unconscious bias training helps create awareness for this ingrained bias. Have everyone on your team attend unconscious bias training. This will help improve everyday interactions. It’ll also help during the interview process as you attempt to build a diverse team.
Australia’s Queensland government has a great set of resources on unconscious bias training.
- Identify where your organization lies on the Westrum category of organizational cultures, and move towards a generative culture
- Conduct team and organization-wide blameless retrospectives
- Regularly ask for feedback on organizational initiatives
- Encourage employees to be accountable and responsible for their actions
- Remove workplace distractions
- Remove blockers
- Set organization, team, and individual goals using something like Google’s OKR framework
- Have everyone participate in research/discovery activities
- Assign people to projects they’re passionate about
- Create and enforce a Code of Conduct
- Have everyone attend unconscious bias training
- Use inclusive language in all communications
- How to Create a Great Team Culture (and Why It Matters)
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at TTS
- 18F’s Inclusive Language Guide
- Sample Code of Conduct (Ontario Digital Service)
- A typology of organisational cultures
- Inclusive design toolkit
- How to Reduce Unconscious Bias at Work
- Measuring culture on our engineering team
Case study: Ontario Digital Service
Direct communication lines between staff and leadership help empower staff to create change in their workplace. Hilary Hartley, Chief Digital Officer of the Ontario Digital Service, knows this from her time as a founding member of 18F. 18F’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy is a model for any level of government.
Ontario Digital Service adopted these principles into the People Board, a group whose mission is to make work better. They engage employees to create change in the office, support diversity and inclusion initiatives, and represent employee voices to senior management. A representative from the People Board sits on the Senior Management Table to advocate for employees. This representative is elected by peers based on their capacity to represent staff voices and perspectives.
People Board members meet every two weeks for the six months of their term and can only serve two consecutive terms to ensure other staff get an opportunity to participate.
Employees know that the People Board represents them fairly, and as a result, elected members are trusted advocates. They create a feedback loop between employees and management that motivates employees to change their workplace.