Scaling/Transforming Culture — Breakfast Ops Jan 2019

Last week I went along to “Breakfast Ops”, a semi-monthly event aimed at CTOs and other technical decision makers, run by The Scale Factory, and held under Chatham House Rule which says

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

The first topic discussed was about “Scaling/Transforing Culture”, mostly in a technical organisation but not limited to a technical team, and I found the discussion insightful — so I thought I’d share my notes.

What is Culture

We started off with asking what we even mean by “Culture” and a few people gave some pithy statements (knowing that any “simple” definition is overly simplistic and often wrong):

  • Culture is the sum of all those little stories
  • Culture is how people behave when the boss isn’t in the room
  • Not something you can “scale”, only change
  • Values” written up on a wall are a Lie.

Psychology 001

(Not even 101, as this is second hand, and based off hastily scribbled notes.)

One of the participants did a “psychology-heavy” Masters course recently and had shared insights I found useful.

The concept of “Othering” was mentioned as it plays a big role in the culture of a team - how that team treats “Others” (another team, customers, the public) plays a big role in culture.

Culture is what we accept, and what we demonstrate, and ultimately what we believe in. What we accept plays a big part in how culture changes as a team or organisation grows: if new hires exhibit different culture (say making lewd jokes) but no one on the team publicly objects: that is now accepted and part of the culture.

Similarly it doesn’t matter at all what people say, but the behaviours they demonstrate are what matters: if we say we care about testing, but the team lead’s changes never come with tests then the rest of the team will likely start copying this behaviour (or feeling resentful about the double standards!)

Changing someone’s belief without changing their values is hard, bordering on impossible. If you wish to change someone’s culture and beliefs then it is best to start with their values. One way suggested to achieve this was to think of it in terms of “Come with me on this” - and make it convincing. This approach hopefully works by changing peoples values first (i.e. it makes them value testing) which should then naturally change what they do.


The discussion then moved on to point out that Nationality also plays a big role in the culture of a team. One person gave an anecdote of how a distributed team containing English, Americans and Polish have different “default cultures”: the English and Americans would always speak a lot on calls, but the Pols were much quieter. This was worrying at first, but on speaking privately to the Polish team lead he was told “if we’re silent it means we agree, but don’t worry: if we think you’re wrong we’ll speak up!”.


Changing the culture of a company as it grows is also closely tied in to the difficulties and changing ways a growing company communicates: when there are 3 of you around a kitchen table the culture and comms is implicit, as you grow to 20 people everyone can know each other and a weekly all-hands meeting is a good way of sharing culture and communicating, but as the company grows to 50 or 100 people both communicating and sharing a culture get harder.

One large private company tried an interesting approach that they called “Culture first inductions”. The on-boarding process for every new hire (including senior director level(!) started with a mandatory six week period in the call center, after which they had to give a “good” presentation about what they learnt. (How good was defined was not mentioned). This change did wonders for the company’s bug rate and bug resolution time!

A counter-point to this example was mentioned: a large retail company had a similar policy where staff from head-office would have to spend a week on a shop floor. However rather than improving things (in this one example) it lead to immediate frustration as the speaker found plentiful examples of poor process and poor computer systems that would be trivial to improve, but senior leadership showed no appetite to listen or fix. This sort of problem might be why the company in the previous example required a “good” presentation.

It was suggested that Freedom from Command and Control — by John Seddon would be worth a read.

A suggestion for how to improve shred culture across a whole company would be draw a parallel from “DevOps” (before it became a job title, if a bad one) - if you can get all teams to work together it will help build shared culture.

That said, someone pointed out that different teams are going to by necessity have different cultures: “I don’t want my Finance team to move fast and break things!”.

Psychology 002 - Learn from Counseling

Since culture is closely tied in to comms and interpersonal relationships it was also suggested that managers should learn some of the basics of counselling, especially if they want to earn the trust of their reports (see the earlier point about “Come with me on this”)

  • Establish safe spaces.

    Nothing else can really happen and you won’t really know how your report is fairing if they don’t feel safe.

  • They may say they feel safe, but if you dig a bit deeper you may find out “I feel safe except…” - often a worry at home, or about money or a promotion.

  • Once you have a safe space then you can help the report, and try to change values.

They couldn’t recommend any specific resources/URLS (they couldn’t remember them off the top of their head) but they recommended looking up guides on:

  • Basic” guides into Counseling and Creating Safe Spaces,
  • Nonviolent Communication


Someone if people had any tips for how to assess culture at the interview stage - they were careful to point out that they wanted to avoid the bias-ridden “culture fit test” which just ends up hiring middle-aged white guys.

One person gave an example of how they did it in their company:

  • They ask questions to assess against their “High Performing Behaviours”
  • Conceptually they have replaced “Culture Fit” with “Value Fit”
  • And importantly: they use a fixed script for each candidate and assess everyone on the same criteria.

Final Thoughts and Further Reading

If you want to change your culture then start by looking at the common denominators (i.e. is your whole team men). An easy (sounding) change might be to introduce diversity.

The easiest to change the culture of a team is at hiring (each new hire will nudge the team culture) but it is possible to change culture while keeping the same people - just harder.


Randical Candour — by Kim Scott

How to Break The Rules — by Dan North (this one was in the pre-discussion so may not be so relevant to culture, but it came highly recommended).