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Culture and Code: Continuous Improvement that Sticks
Making your continuous improvement effective and durable
So for this month’s whiskey moments, Arlo’s going to share his mechanism for continuous improvement that sticks, which he calls Culture as a Process.
Interested in a low cost 2-hr workshop about applying it? Let us know!
Continuous Improvement is great. However, do you see:
the same problems come up at retro after retro?
the manager having to hold back their opinions or take away team ownership?
the team’s hard-won improvements last only until the next manager dictate or re-org?
This is why Continuous Improvement needs a structure. What does that have to do with culture though? At it’s heart, process and relationships is culture, thus a structure for Continuous Process is in reality a rigorous way to build culture incrementally. Sounds like we need Culture as a Process!
Culture as a Process uses three Structures and four Practices to deliver on one Principle. Let’s work back from the value delivered.
One Principle: Equal Power to Make Change
The principle is simple in concept but can be difficult to achieve in practice.
Every person has equal power to change how the team works and the idea that turns out to be most effective in practice is the one the team adopts. This is true no matter the differences in positional authority, extroversion, processing style and speed, data manipulation/visualization skill, customer access, domain or software expertise, cultural status, or anything else that might cause one voice to be heard more clearly than another.
This principle aligns with our values - it sounds nice. However, businesses will do only the practices that bring success, regardless of values. So the big question is, does this principle also align with business success? It probably feels like the answer would be no, but let’s look at how it can be yes.
How Equal Power to Change Transforms Team Effectiveness
Culture as a Process focuses on just one principal, just one goal, just one outcome, which is how we change the culture.
The simple answer is because every person, including me, is wrong more often than we are right.
Painful, but real.
This means that the only route to optimize our effectiveness is to change many times. Our initial idea will be wrong, and so will the next and the next. Each has some kernel of right and gets us a step closer, but we will never be consistently right on the first try. And because each team and context is different, even experience won’t help you be right.
Thus any team that attempts to follow a vision, roadmap, or goal is inherently limited by the errors in that vision.
The only way to transcend those limits to to focus on the change system itself. And the more we can bring in ideas from different people and from across time, the more improvement each change will bring.
I’ve seen this play out in both large enterprises and new startups. New Relic, for example, made a clear system for defining and changing working agreements: Culture as Code. This was one key element in their transition towards teams that delivered greater value with less oversight.
Similarly, I’ve seen many startups grow rapidly, stall out for a couple of years, and then finally unlock. Often, the great unfolding happens about a quarter after a well-meaning but directive founder is removed from the CTO role and the team starts determining its own ways to work. The sudden wealth of previously-trapped ideas rockets the team into adjacent use cases and new markets.
How to (More) Easily Remove Power Imbalances In Your Change Culture
Even assuming that this one principle is so effective though, is it feasible? After all, culture change is hard, deconstructing systematized power is hard, and everyone has a real job to do.
In my experience, the difficulty of changing the system depends a lot on how you try to change it. Most teams struggle for months and never get there. Most individuals push against the cultural monolith for a year or two and burn out.
Yet other individuals spend about 10 hours per week on it for 2 months and implement power equality in a way that lasts through the next 2-3 re-orgs.
Looking at what they did, I find their secret is to solve four specific needs, each with one keystone practice. They implement those practices one at a time; each takes 1-2 weeks. And they support those practices with three concrete structures within their control. These practices and structures are what I’ve codified into Culture as a Process.
The four key needs are:
A way to make decisions that is resistant to authority.
A way to propose a change, directly in our agreements (not as comments), yet without disrupting the status quo until after an agreement is made.
A way to make behavior change easy, so that convenience drives change.
A way to discover good solutions when the pain is obvious and universal but the solution is not.
There are multiple solutions to each of these. Culture as a Process simply codifies some of the easiest ones to adopt that are effective enough to get a team to success.
Want to Learn How to Apply Culture as Code?
We would love to help you apply Culture as Code to your team. We offer a low-cost, 2-hour workshop to get you started. Working together, your team will exit the workshop with an agreement to invest in change, alignment on the principle, and a customized week-by-week sequence of steps to transition over 2 months.
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