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Culture: a Farming Tale

| Posted by Manny Segarra III Follow 0 Followers , Susan McIntosh Follow 7 Followers on Nov 07, 2017. Estimated reading time: 8 minutes |

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Key Takeaways

  • Building a culture is a long-term process, but pays dividends, just as farming can.
  • Regular care and routine practices cannot be rushed or ignored without consequences. 
  • People (employees, customers, and stakeholders) need essentials to thrive and feel mutual benefit in a relation.
  • Processes must be followed, but modified when no longer useful.
  • Products and goals should be identified, and priorities established, so conflicts will be easier to resolve.
  • Partnerships with other organizations need evaluation to ensure that mutual benefit is obtained.

Context

A building needs a foundation. A foundation comes from a plan, which comes from a vision or dream. When music is written, it comes from inspiration or a muse. Wisdom comes from Truth which is built on facts and data.

Corporations are built for, by and sometimes on top of, people. Our employees, coworkers, managers and executives all require a mutual purpose, in order to coordinate our efforts towards our goals. Within this context, the culture which emerges becomes our foundation. In our discussion, we will transform our foundation from concrete and steel, to something soft, pliable, and renewable; we will grow our culture in soil.

Soil supports the farming analogy as we discuss the importance of culture. Culture arises within the context of group interactions. It springs from common experience, which forges group understanding into shared learnings that are used to evaluate future behaviors. Culture exists in civilizations, corporations, and sport teams where it manifests in expressions such as rituals, business practices, and fight songs. In our farming analogy, the farmer who tends her soil is working towards maximizing the harvest. In the old days, a good harvest meant sustenance for the family, a fair price at market and a little left over for bartering or storage. Nowadays, maximizing seed to yield ratios, minimizing spoilage and reducing time to market are a normal set of performance metrics. The largest impact on the soil will be the mindset of our employees, which drives behavior and ultimately performance. We will explore various elements of culture and how to identify and adjust these elements, in order to maximize positive performance and outputs.

Analogy: Farming

"You reap what you sow" embodies the essence of this discussion. The focus of resources and commitment to the growth of our workforce pays dividends when our people take care of our customers with the same passion.

The process of farming cannot be circumvented, there is no alternative but to yield to Mother Nature. Preparation and planting are done according to the cycles of the season, which governs the farmer's behavior. Faith, our farmer, is experienced and knows the elements and how balancing their interactions gives her crops the best chance to thrive. Using Faith's process for crops, we will translate her farming activities into business practices for our teams. Faith respects and accepts Father Time. She cannot compress the time needed for tilling the soil, hoeing the rows, planting the seed, spreading the manure (common business practice), weeding, watering and finally the harvest.

Software development can follow Faith's process to ensure consistent, repeatable delivery. Proper planning should not be rushed. Business schedules are not implicitly tied to weather and seasons; however, a predictable cadence of delivery could be beneficial to your teams and customers.

Planning is like tilling the soil. Moisture levels, soil composition, nutrients and depth are crucial in order to balance the conditions for sustainable growth, quality of produce, and a high harvest yield. Selecting crops for growth is like product selection and feature development.

Hoeing the rows is like story mapping with teams, where they have a chance to design, explore and discuss the work. Planting the seed is writing code. Spreading the manure is, well, you can insert your analogy here or we can make a few jokes at the expense of status meetings and quarterly reports! Harvesting the crops is delivering products to our customers, ensuring the growth of our people, maturing processes, supporting teams, and tracking customer satisfaction.

Growing Crops

Culture serves as the soil in our analogy. As different crops require different nutrients, people require a diverse range of directions to develop. How organizations 'grow' their people is affected by factors such as economics, business development, and market trends. As we look at several elements of an organization, we will need different 'farming' techniques for growing and harvesting:

People

The essential elements for farming are sunlight, good soil, and water. People need the same and these essentials of mutual purpose, motivation, recognition and leadership. Although the list of essentials is debatable, the importance of their presence is not. Ultimately, the most important element; Trust is to people as water is to farming; there is no growth or survival without it.

Faith would grow her crops with an eye to their future prosperity -- good growth and the resulting healthy product for market. Farming and/or growing techniques focus around nourishment. Giving the people and crops what they need, instead of what management budgets for, provides a commitment to future growth and demonstrates investment.

In our business context, organizations providing a solid vision, training programs, and autonomy allow growth by empowering people to set career development goals. Aligning these goals with corporate strategies is a win for all as long as new skills can be applied in line with the same opportunities and responsibilities.

The soil of your company must encompass a culture of learning. The concept of learning is comprised of other concepts such as motivation, curiosity, logic, problem solving, and comprehension. Embedding these concepts in your soil can be achieved with dedication to growth. Nutrients for your soil include activities such as mentoring programs, online subscriptions to tech tutorials, a sizable and accessible training budget (many companies forgo training since turnover is high in their organizations - is this causality?), clear career paths, and tuition reimbursement. Many companies which do not possess large financial assets can substitute feature development for innovation cycles, but something more than a one-day hack-a-thon would be preferable and more productive. Just as Faith tests the soil for proper pH balances, companies understand their culture with feedback through surveys and town halls -- the good, bad, and ugly truth of progress. This allows insightful response in ways which retain people, such as real action from feedback, recognition programs and management training.

Process

When Faith plans the harvest, she takes into consideration which crops go where and that inevitably affects the way the crops are tended. Process is followed on the farm, just like the boardroom. Businesses have daily status updates, similar to the farm's daily chores - operational activities needed to keep the organization going., Tactical initiatives such as quarterly reports are less frequent, but still necessary events, like monthly crop dusting. Finally, strategic planning and realignments on year-long timelines, are akin to planning the harvest or the harvest itself.

Process can flourish in a culture that is adaptive and focused on change. As business conditions change, processes must have short feedback loops so response time can be shortened so actions can have time for execution. On the farm, Faith changes her farming techniques according to soil conditions, weather changes, moisture levels, or weed populations. The element of time cannot be rushed when growing crops. Ears of corn first shoot out, then get bigger, and mature for harvest; no shortcuts. Is this the same with business? Businesses are historically at fault, and continue to shortcut process in the name of cost reductions, cutting production time or delivering on a promised date.

Bad decisions damage the culture by setting the example, through action and behavior, of revenue over quality, speed over safety, or in the extreme, profit over integrity. The last example would be akin to Faith selling corn prematurely. As a rhythm is established on a farm, the structure of process lends stability in times of crisis. Process should be adhered to and not changed for the sake of convenience. Agreeing to visible metrics before projects start provides clarity and objectivity, like writing down success criteria for lab experiments beforehand, eliminating political influence or confirmation bias.

Products

The produce grown in business are the product suites selected for market this year. Market trends and customer requests are main factors determining where development efforts are focused, however internal products, services, and systems usually compete for the same development cycles. This is where competing interests divide and overwhelm software development team capacities, like plants that don't grow together well like peppers with beans or tomatoes with cucumbers.

Partners

Growing partnerships is a long-term process, like a fig tree that takes one or two years to harvest or an apple tree that produces after two to five years. Strategic alliances and mergers can disrupt everything on the org chart but strong cultures, rooted in learning, can provide the proper soil for new cultures to take root. Partnerships can be grown with different farming tools like short and long-term contracts for services based on quality, longevity (with cost secondary), sharing development processes to increase communication, collaboration with on-site design sessions to coordinate testing, and deployments.

Today's globalization obligates organizations to evaluate the impact on its people, process and profit of international and ethnic cultural differences. US based cultural styles such as Competence or Command and Control (based on Schneider's model of culture types) may not integrate with Japanese business styles which are averse to dominance or arrogance. Businesses must integrate cultural differences in people, just like Faith ensures crops that grow together have mutual benefit, like the shade provided by big squash leaves, that block the sun so weeds do not flourish around its neighbors. The soil of a learning culture naturally benefits partners by inviting outside perspectives and an open, growth mindset which fosters experimentation with new ideas. When partners grow together over time and project successes, the communication channels are established between teams which can "cross-pollinate" cultural norms, an element with a mutual benefit of learning. Future projects based on past successes provides the most important nutrient, Trust. In the next section, Diversity will be introduced as a major influence on business and culture. The multiple advantages of Diversity will be turned into actionable items, to nurture your people and tend your soil.

About the Authors

Susan McIntosh is an agile coach and scrum master with a background in programming. A former teacher and consultant, she has been drawn to agile practices, especially the training and change management that are a part of transformations. She finds analogies to improving workplace culture in her varied experience in theater and dance, yoga, cooking, and parenting. Susan is an active participant in the agile community in Denver, Colorado.

Manny G Segarra 3 has 20 years of IT experience, 7+ years guiding Lean/Agile transitions as Agile Coach/SM, creating team efficiency and reducing cycle times across development and DevOps teams. Deep knowledge and experience in process improvement, coaching, team building, cultural assessments. International experience, working through multi-national cultural issues across global time zones. Leadership, mentoring and team building skills assertively applied to process improvement and accountability. Served as ScrumMaster to Scrum Alliance, current board member of Agile Denver, founder of ScrumMasters Guild, pro bono coaching donated to local non profits.

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