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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Culture Game - a book by Dan Mezick

The Culture Game - a book by Dan Mezick

Dan Mezick has written The Culture Game – a how-to book describing 16 learning patterns derived from Agile, with A-B-C steps for spreading these patterns throughout your organization. The book establishes links between culture, games, happiness, learning and productivity, explaining that a focus on game mechanics is the real key to upgrading the culture of your organization. The book provides specific examples, and examines the lessons learned about creating and nurturing company culture at Zappos Inc.

The book looks at the foundations of culture, what constitutes organisational culture and discusses ways to encourage and lead cultural transformation. Drawing on his experience with Agile practices the author examines the values that underlie culture, shows how the Agile values engender organisational learning, and how important a learning culture is to the success in the modern business environment.

As the author says in the book:

“In software development, team learning is an absolute and essential requirement for success. That is why the essential lessons from Agile practice are so important. These lessons can be extracted, generalized, repurposed and scaled up to enable enterprise-wide learning. The lessons of Agile team learning do scale, although many Agile practices do not. The Agile revolution in software development contains all of the keys to fostering wide-scope, enterprise-wide learning”

Over the next few weeks, InfoQ will be publishing excerpts from the book for InfoQ’s readers. The first excerpt can be found here.

InfoQ’s Shane Hastie recently interviewed Dan Mezick and asked him about the important messages from the book:

InfoQ: Why did you write this book – what is the problem you are trying to solve?

Dan Mezick: This book explains how to scale Agile learning up and out of software teams, into the wider organization. What I call social learning or “Tribal Learning” is not random. It is intentional, and requires knowledge and execution of certain very specific patterns derived from Agile. This book shows how to rapidly increase levels of learning in organizations, so that these organizations can rapidly identify and exploit opportunities. That is the problem that this book solves.

InfoQ: What makes you the right people to solve that problem – what are your credentials to support your authorship?

Dan: I have 25 years of experience teaching software engineering and watching people learn complex subject matter. In the 1990's I led a organization of about 50 people. During that experience I noticed that something was wrong with learning levels in organizations as compared to individuals. I have 5 years experience coaching teams, executives and entire organizations in Agile practices, since 2007. While delivering coaching, I have conducted hundreds of small experiments, keeping notes on the results. The guidance in my book is based on these practical experiences over a 25 year period as a business leader, a teacher of software engineering and a coach to teams and organizations.

InfoQ: You refer to Games a lot in the book – aren’t these serious issues to address rather than just games?

Dan: By focusing on what I call game mechanics, we can accelerate team learning. This insight is a breakthrough solution to the productivity problem at work.

The word 'game' is a loaded term. We typically associate it with winning, losing, competing in 'zero-sum' scenarios, and so on. I reject that definition, because that is a very, very narrow view of the world of games. Jane McGonigal in her book Reality Is Broken defines a 'good game' as any activity with a clear goal, clear rules, a clear way to obtain frequent feedback, and “opt-in” (optional) participation. By that elegant definition, all meetings are games. Participation on a team is a game. Working in an organization is in fact a game. These games are often not fun to play precisely because the goals, rules, and feedback mechanics are poorly structured. In addition, we are compelled to play these games.

We can leverage these insights to quickly solve serious productivity problems at work. We can tweak the game mechanics and quickly get better- even amazing- results.

InfoQ: You base a lot of the book on your experiences at Zappos – what is so special about that organization beyond the marketing hype?

Dan: What is special about Zappos is how the organization applies game dynamics to the art and science of organizational culture. By focusing on 10 core values, the entire organization is more adaptive and learns faster that organizations that do not. This is what is special about Zappos. Working at Zappos is a good game. It is satisfying and fun to play. There is much more to this story and it is described in my book. The Zappos culture is a learning culture. The Zappos organization knows how to rapidly learn.

InfoQ: You call the approach you are suggesting Culture Hacking – why so?

Dan: Culture is 'software for your head'. In social situations, the culture is the operating system. We are all very familiar with the analysis, design and implementation of software. We are also very familiar with the idea of hacking software systems.

What we are far less familiar with is the idea of analyzing, designing and implementing a cultural system. Culture, like software, can be intentionally designed and implemented. Existing culture can be analyzed, and deliberately modified or hacked.

Culture hacking is the intentional modification of a culture for personal betterment and the betterment of others. Culture hacking, like software hacking, is not something you ever ask permission to do. You just do it. In the book I explain how to exploit the leverage managers have to convene meetings and hire people. This leverage can be used to actively hack company culture, one group at a time.

Culture hackers are just like software hackers. They are focused on continuous improvement, in this case the improvement and refactoring of cultural codes instead of computer codes.

InfoQ: What is the relationship between Culture Hacking and the other big idea in the book – Tribal Learning?

Dan: The idea that all organizational cultures are OK is a seriously flawed idea. All cultures are not OK if the measure we are optimizing on is how fast the organization is learning. Business organizations that learn fast are clearly superior to those who do not. They routinely respond faster to change to identify and take advantage of opportunities. Levels of Tribal Learning in an organization are mostly a function of cultural support for such learning.

Tribal Learning is group-level, social learning. It is organizational learning. It is the kind of learning that is required to rapidly respond to the big opportunities that change creates. Genuine Agile teams generate lots of Tribal Learning. To do this, they actively hack the culture of their teams. They intentionally use practices like information radiation, pair programming, coaching and meeting facilitation to create a culture of learning. Agile is in fact a culture hack for teams. Culture hacking techniques can be used to manifest increased levels of group-level learning at larger scale.

InfoQ: Why TRIBAL learning?

Dan: When we find others with whom we share common interests, we feel like we have 'found our tribe'. Tribal Learning is the term I use to describe what can happen after that.

In his book Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh of Zappos describes how connectedness and a feeling of membership associates with a sense of well-being. My book builds on that work, and the work of Dave Logan in the book Tribal Leadership. In Tribal Leadership, a tribe is defined as a group of about 20 to 150 people. In my book, I avoid the problem of enterprise-wide learning, instead choosing to focus on a much more well-contained problem: how to effectively scale Agile learning up and out from teams to tribes, from team to groups of up to 150 people.

InfoQ: You link culture hacking with the Agile manifesto – surely these are just good management ideas and not related to software development, which the manifesto was addressing?

Dan: The Manifesto is a blatantly intentional culture hack. It is articulating a cultural design template for software teams. In the book, I explain that the Manifesto is actually articulating a set of principles for building a Learning Organization as described by Peter Senge in the book The Fifth Discipline, published in 1990. In this sense, Agile has cracked the problem of how to get a genuine Learning Organization.

Software is notoriously difficult to ship, and this dynamic of complexity led to the Agile Manifesto. The Manifesto in turn led to various aligned practices that make those principles come to life in the day-to-day work of software professionals. Practices like Scrum and Kanban are aligned on most if not all of the Manifesto principles. Agile practices, aligned on the Manifesto, are a total culture hack. They modify an in-place culture where it is, and those modifications encourage new patterns of group behavior to emerge that support higher levels of social learning. All of Agile is a deliberate hack on the culture of organizations that are having trouble shipping good software on time.

Until teams learn fast, software does not ship. Agile is a culture hack in the direction of more (and more rapid) team learning. The harsh reality of software complexity has cracked the code on how to build a genuine Learning Organization. We call it a Team.

InfoQ: What are some of the other management ideas that have influenced you in this work?

Dan: The ideas of Jim Collins, Edward Deming, Peter Senge, Dave Logan, Tony Hsieh, and Jane McGonigal have all have influenced this book.

Jim Collins in Good To Great describes how getting the right people on the bus is more important than first naming a direction. I agree with that. The right people are opted-in people because opted-in people are by definition engaged. Engagement correlates with high productivity at work.

The ideas of Deming and Kaizen culture are an important influence as well. A commitment to respect people and continuously improvement with them is essential.

Dave Logan an co-authors wrote Tribal Leadership. This book describes a 5-stage culture model and a way of socializing ideas from the bottom-up using a 3-person structure called a triad. My book is a kind of application that runs on the Tribal Leadership operating system.

Tony Hsieh's business ideas around happiness are an essential element of my framework. His 4-part happiness framework gets it right. People definitely respond to more perceived control, progress and group membership.

Lastly Jane McGonigal in her book Reality is Broken really provided the key to unlock and complete the thesis of my book. While not a management book, her 4-part game definition completely explains many management problems and solutions in my view. I love Jane McGonigal's work. I'm drawing from her work to describe specific culture hacks. The most effective culture hacks described in my book are aimed at pointing the goal, rules and feedback mechanisms at work towards more team and social learning, what I am calling Tribal Learning.

InfoQ: You put a lot of emphasis on achieving a “sense of happiness” in work – why is this so important?

Dan: People who are engaged are productive, and engaged people are by definition happy to be there. Therefore, happy people are productive, almost without trying. Designing work with a clear goal, clear rules and opt-in participation delivers a sense of control, which we know engages people and helps makes them feel good. Happiness at work can be gamed (see this link) and doing so can result in large, measurable increases in productivity.

InfoQ: You introduce some models of human behavior (such as The Results Pyramid and the Safety Stack) – why should we care?

Dan: People populate the roles in organizations, and businesses exist to serve human needs. A focus on people is essential.

No lasting change in a group can occur unless something called 'belief change' takes place in that group. A good example from software product management is the belief in prediction. Predictions made early in a software project are very over-rated. Instead of predicting without any experience, we can gain some experience now, and inspect the results-- and learn something. This is the empirical approach. The Results pyramid explains how to help make belief change happen by 'acting as if' a certain social behavior (like starting a project without a “perfect” plan) can work. By understanding the dynamics and interplay of values, experience, results, behavior and beliefs, readers build a framework for understanding exactly how to get belief change happening.

Safety is an essential requirement for social learning or what I call Tribal Learning. As such, it needs to be an area of focus for managers, and more carefully studied. In the book, I explain how and why low safety levels associate with very low levels of social learning. Low learning levels in turn regulate how much adaptation can actually happen in the face of change. Research out of Harvard Business School from Professor Amy Edmondson shows that psychological safety, levels of social learning, levels of engagement, and levels of productivity are all correlated. This is why we must pay careful attention to the dynamics of human behavior.

InfoQ: What are some of the key tribal learning practices and how do they work together to achieve happiness and success in the workplace (as much or little detail as you want here)?

Dan: Most organizations have lots of meetings. Meeting are a pain point, and are often experienced as soul-sucking death marches. The patterns and practices in the book can help make those same meetings productive and fun. Some of the practices include 'being punctual', 'facilitating all your meetings', 'managing visually', and 'structuring your interactions'. By applying these 4 patterns to your meetings in very specific ways, you are raising the level of engagement by paying attention to good-game dynamics and doing some tuning. You are also delivering a sense of perceived control and progress for all the meeting participants. That makes folks feel good and the results can be very impressive. (For more detail on this, take a look at this blog post Dave Logan: Make Your Meetings Productive and Fun. )

InfoQ: What are the benefits that organizations/teams/individuals will gain from adopting the tribal learning patterns?

Dan:  Deploying even a few of the patterns results in more productivity when working in groups. The productivity comes from higher levels of engagement, related social learning and resulting adaptive behaviors. The patterns and practices found in the book transcend Agile and can be used anywhere people organize to do work. These patterns are used to extend Agile ideas and results well beyond software.

InfoQ: Can the practices be introduced piecemeal, or does an organization/team/individual need to adopt them all at once?

Dan: Readers applying the patterns can start with just 3 or 4. They can select 3 or 4 that are most easily implemented inside their context. Once you are doing 3 or 4 of them well, adding more is not difficult.

InfoQ: Aren’t the tribal learning practices just a checklist of behaviours – why do they engender cultural change, and is cultural change necessary to achieve the benefits you describe?

Dan: These are the behaviors the best Agile teams are caught doing. These group-level habits engender team-level cultural change for several reasons. First, most of these patterns require some explicit, opt-in agreements up front before using them. Second, most of these practices and patterns tend to help build a shared model of reality, with related language to directly support that shared model. Shared moels support team learning. Third, many of the 16 patterns directly support a wider and more open conversational space. Previously taboo subjects become OK to discuss. Lastly, when people opt-into an activity, they are by definition engaged. All of this: opt-in participation, safe space, shared models and explicit agreements-- all serve to support cultural change in the direction of more team learning.

It is important to notice that wherever and whenever people meet, culture grows. By deliberately injecting good-game dynamics and pattern-learning behaviors into meetings, we are intentionally hacking the culture of that meeting. We are culture hacking.

The same is true for Agile teams. Most Agile practices are structured as very good games. Kanban and Scrum for example can be each be experienced as a set of clearly specified goals, with clear rules and a clear way to receive feedback on demand. What the Tribal Learning patterns do is generalize these ideas, up and out of software, in a way that allows Agile ideas to be leveraged well beyond software. Cultural design and the deliberate gaming of engagement is the next frontier in the world of work.

InfoQ: What is needed for tribal learning to be possible in an organization?

Dan: In the book, I explain that at a minimum, the participants must be willing to at least tolerate the use of the patterns and practices. Learning at the level of group is not random and is fully intentional. The people in it have to willingly participate. This insight explains why enterprise agile adoptions usually fail.

InfoQ: You talk about the importance of Triads in tribal learning – what are they and why are they so important?

Dan: Triads as described in the book Tribal Leadership are 3-person structures where each of the 3 members are aligned on values, and each person takes responsibility for the quality of connection between the other two. The triad typically exists to execute a small strategy inside a small timebox of 90 to 100 days.

In Part 3 of the book, I explain how to leverage triads as a culture hacking tool to socialize the Tribal Learning practices throughout the organization. Using triads in this way is an organic, bottom-up strategy that extends Agile-style learning from teams to tribes, those informal networks we are all of part of at work. My book is a tutorial and reference guide for corporate culture hackers. It leverages the triad as the fundamental device for socializing culture change informally, without permission, throughout the entire organization, from the bottom up.

InfoQ: If the book has a single message for the reader, what is it?

Dan: Culture is a game, and we can design it, and hack it, and play it. Organizations that do not quickly adapt are being replaced by those who can routinely respond quickly. Figuring out how to keep people deeply engaged in the work is the key, and is the new management puzzle to solve. Proven patterns of team learning implemented with good-game dynamics is the recipe for building an organization that can learn, adapt, and prosper in a world of continuous change and opportunity. Culture is the key to making this happen. 

About the Book Author

Dan Mezick advises leaders, teams and organizations. An expert on culture design and business agility, Dan speaks frequently at industry conferences on culture change, organizational learning, and teamwork. He is an organizer of the agile CULTURE Conference, the signal event coming to Philadelphia & Boston in September of 2012. Sponsored by INFOQ, this event is keenly focused on the emerging art & science of culture design for teams and organizations. You can learn more here.

Dan's organization New Technology Solutions provides training programs, consulting & coaching to businesses of all sizes that are seeking more business agility. You can reach Dan at , by phone at 203 915 7248, via Twitter @DanMezick, or via his blog.


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