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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Steve Peha on Agreements-Based Culture

Steve Peha on Agreements-Based Culture


1. Good morning, this is Amr Elssamadisy at QCon San Francisco 2013. I am here with Steve Peha. Welcome Steve. Let's start by you telling us a little bit about yourself.

I am the president and founder of “Teaching That Makes Sense”, an education consultancy since about the beginning of education reform in the mid 1990ies, but I have also been in the software product development business, since probably I got out of college. So about 30 years in software product development sort of running alongside of about 20 years in education. So you can image that some of that has been educational software development.


2. Welcome. That’s great. So what are you passionate about these days?

Well up until about a year or so ago, I was very, very passionate about adding skills, learning new tools, learning new methods. And than something changed. I have got onto a very, very large project, really an incredible project, and no matter how technically advanced we were, no matter how many people we had, how much budget we had, it just didn’t seem to go as well as many of us thought it should.


3. This is software development?

This is a large software project, yeah. It was a large enterprise system, about a 150 people in, about a 100 Million dollar budget, I was the product owner on it for about 18 months, to deliver the first version. And like I said, it really should have been the perfect project, greenfield all the way, no legacy code, management was totally bought into the Agile methods that we used, but it just hit some rough spots and it never really got going. And I left there after the project was over, with a different sense of what I wanted to do for the next 20 years of my career.


4. What went wrong with that project?

Well, I am not sure that anything went wrong more or less. It was that something probably didn’t go right. I think that we were so focused on tools and practise and process and methods, that we forgot about the people, we forgot about the culture that sort of emerged. And everytime we hit a rough spot we go do an I&A, we draw a fishbone diagram and at the bottom of the fishbone diagram we’d get down to something and people go: Ah, it’s culture. Can’t do anything about it, it’s just culture.


5. So they quit?

Well they didn’t quit, but they quit on the problem, you know. And I have to admit, I was stimied by it too. We’d get down it where it’s culture, I guess we can’t shape culture. It’s like the air we breath. But I left the project with a really nagging sense that I wanted to change my work in a really dramatic way. I wanted to move away from all the tools and practises and processes I’d use in both software and education and focus almost all my work entirely on culture. Organizational culture in technology, in education, because I think that’s where the roadblocks have always been.


6. That sounds reasonable. I found the same thing, so tell us about that. Where are you with culture, ok, it’s important. Do you have any advice about it, can we do anything?

Well, I was at Agile 2013 and doing a workshop and sort of came upon an interesting idea. It was the notion of an agreement-based work culture, that I think I would call it. The notion that, as we work together in a team, we have explicit agreements that we keep, so that we can trust each other a little bit more about what’s going to get done and who is going to do it and when it is going to happen. And I think this agreement-based culture is very promising I found, in making teams work a little bit better.


7. Agreements. Is this something special or are we talking about everyday agreements that we make?

Well, I think we make a lot of everyday agreements. Scrum is a whole bunch of agreements. There is even 18 pages of it you can get and it tells you all the things you are supposed to do. But the fact of the matter is, that most Scrum teams don’t keep explicit agreements. They show up at a certain time, they say a certain set of things, after a while even on the project that I was on, Scrum drifted and it went one way or another. It developed it’s own sort of culture, not out of intention but almost an accidental culture, that became less and less funcionable over time. And I think the thing that really caught my attention, as I was further away from the project, is that we can be more intentional about culture, if we can reach agreements with each other about how we want to do things, about how we want to work together.

Amr: So culture does not have to be an accident and you can do something about it with this agreements-based approach to work that you are talking about.

Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. Culture can be intentional. I think we used to think culture is something that just developes because there are 57 people in an open office room and six months later we have some kind of culture. What I discovered in comparing some successful parts of the product with some unsuccessful parts, well the successful parts always had explicit agreements with certain members of my team, one engeneering team that I was working with, certain agreements with my Scrummaster and that the situations that didn’t work so well, particularly a couple that went really poorly, were ones that I could never reach agreement on with another person. And I realized over time that this is something you can do incrementally, to sort of improve a culture or to build a culture from scratch. This is what we did on my first engeneering team on the project. I met early with the Scrummaster,we talked about some of the goals we had, we made some agreements together and than we shared them with the team and the team sort of made some agreements about what kind of team it wanted to be and how it wanted to work. And as we go through from sprint to sprint, retro to retro, we would modify those agreements, but the point is, that they were explicit agreements between team members and that gave us a high sense of trust and an easy way to know that we would going to get the work done, that we thought we are going to do.

Amr: So, it sounds that even without you being very explicit and aware of agreements, agreements are a natural fabric of our daily work.

I think they are, yes. I think that’s the wonderful thing about it, that it is such a simple thing. We all make agreements all the time. We agree to have Scrum at 10 a.m. and as long as we all show up between 09:55 and 10, it goes great. But the first time somebody showes up at 10:07, there is a little bit of a problem. And than two people say, well there was traffic, I was late and I got there at 10:30, pretty soon you are not having Scrum anymore and you lose the value of that practise.

Amr: Been there, done that.

What’s even worse is, if you let that go, …

Amr: We all let it go.

Well we do.

Amr: Or we fight about it.

Yeah, but if you let that go long enough, maybe even just a couple of days, Scrum sort of brakes down. You don’t know if you are going to have it at 10, so I don’t show up at 10 and you don’t show up at 10 and pretty sure, Scrum is not happening the way Scrum is supposed to. If we get away from some of the agreements, that we had about when we started.


8. But isn’t that just life?

You are absolutely right. And I think we all tend to let them go, especially if they are small. But I think we should do exactly the opposite. I think if we want to create an intentional culture of agreement, where we work well together, I think what we need to do is confront each other very quickly, very easily on the agreements that we made and get back into the agreement of time. I think if Scrum starts to drift, we should just meet again and say: Hey, we agreed there is Scrum at 10 a.m. every morning and we should get back to doing it that way.

Amr: But confronting is anything but easy.

Well, it is. In our culture it tends do be confrontational. What I have been working on in the last few months is a way of looking at it, that is not confrontational. It’s a way of just looking someone in the eye and saying: Amr, we broke an agreement. We said, we would going to get something done yesterday and we didn’t and I think we need to talk about that. Let’s see if we can make a new agreement about getting that same thing done. I propose x or y or z, you make a counter-proposal, we walk away in an agreement.


9. Well, that sounds really all very nice and dandy and wrapped in a bow and very theoretical. And you say you are new to this, so why should we believe you?

Because I have been using it and it is getting better. I have been using it in all different parts of my work and the interesting thing is, this is very simple, I am working with a client tomorrow for example and he wanted to know, how I wanted to structure the day. And I said, these are the three things that I would like to do. He said, we can do one of them. And I said, great. This is what we need to sew to set that up. And over a two week creative time we set all that up. And I think tomorrow when I go there to do the work, I am pretty sure all the agreements will be kept. If we don’t keep the agreements, if something is different when I get there, it will be very easy for me to go to him and say: Hey, I thought we were going to do it this way. Why don’t we go back to that, or is there an other reason, why don’t we reach a new agreement and we move forward with that. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It is really a very simple matter of looking someone into the eye - you know confront doesn’t really mean anger or a cause of problem, confront just means meet someone face to face – and a very simple way and say: Why don’t we do it this way? What do you think?


10. [...] But how does that effect culture, what do agreements have to do with culture at all?

Amr's full question: So Steve, what you have told me is, that practices are not enough. Culture is really important, but it has been very very hard for you and I admit for many of us to do something about it. And than you are telling me, that this whole agreements thing can help us actually do something about culture, that culture doesn’t have to be an accident. We have dug into agreemens. I’ll give you that. But how does that effect culture, what do agreements have to do with culture at all?

Well, I think in an interesting way, especially in team software development, the interactions between individuals that we all care so much about in the Agile community, are really governed by agreements. And the more explicit and the larger number of these agreements, the greater the degree to which we keep them, the more the interactions become more fluid, easier. I know what to expect, you know what to expect and we become a higher functioning team, because we work together in a certain way that we have agreed on ahead of time.


11. So the agreements and the interactions are culture, is that what you’re saying?

Well, I think a team culture, especially in a software team, is the set of interactions between individuals and I think those interactions between individuals can be governed by explicit agreements.


12. How do these agreements that govern our interactions make them more effective?

They give us essentially a form, a way of knowing what to do. So if there is, what might have been an expectation between the two of us, I might have expected that you do one thing, you might have expected that I would do an other, we might end up at a conflict where I didn’t do what you thought, you didn’t to what I thought. If instead we had an explicit agreement about it or even if we came to that point, where we might have been otherwise in conflict and we say: Do you know what, let’s throw away our expectations for a second and let’s make an agreement about how we want to work together. This can really change the nature of a culture, from one that is accidental, unintentional, drifting in all sorts of different ways, and can bringing us back into alignment as a team. So that we can all be working toward the same thing in the same direction.

Amr: So, of course we need managers and executives to be on board.

You know, that’s the interesting thing. I don’t think we do. I think, just as we have a lot success with self organizing teams, I think people in teams can self organize and create agreements amongst themselves. I think even one person within an organization can do this, simply by saying: I work by agreement. If you want me to do something, tell me what you want, I’ll tell you whether or not I can do it. If I don’t think I can, I’ll propose something else. We’ll end up by agreeing to what I am going to do. I’ll do it and we will move on. If I don’t do it, you will take the action of confronting me on it as quickly as possible. If you confront me on it very quickly and in a very simple way, say: Steve, we broke an agreement. I’ll probably feel like talking to you about it and we’ll probably come to reaching a new agreement as quickly as we can. And I really think, that’s the key. There is this process by which we can improve our culture, that involves making, keeping, confronting broken agreements and than renegotiating and recommitting to them. And the more agreements we make, the more often we confront them and renegotiate them, the stronger our culture gets, because the culture becomes explicit and everybody knows what to do.


13. Thank you so much Steve. Where can we learn more?

I have just started a new project, it is called “The Culture Engine”. You can find it at Just learning about this myself, doing starting to do some presentations. And we are here at QCon tomorrow doing a tutorial on the Culture Engine and helping organizations improve their culture with this agreement based approach to work. So if you would like to go to and you like to make a comment on the website, or send me an e-Mail, I’d really appreciate hearing from you.

Amr: Well, thank you so much Steve.

Thank you, Amr.

Jan 25, 2014