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Happy Cultures and How They Grow High Performers

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Tom Clark, head of the common platform team at UK broadcaster ITV, spoke at DOXLON in February about how he builds on Dan Pink's principles of autonomy, mastery and purpose to create happy and motivated teams at ITV, one of the UK's largest media companies. His talk proposed and set out to prove the hypothesis that high performance comes as a side-effect of creating happy teams. Andy Flemming, CEO of Way to Go Inc and a contributor to the 2016 book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, was recently interviewed on the Agile Uprising Podcast about his observations of how organisations can reap business and strategic benefits from creating a culture with an intentional focus on the learning, growth and happiness of individuals.

Clark described how he builds happy and high performing teams, by building on top of Dan Pink's strategies for bringing out excellence within individuals through an intentional focus on the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose. Clark presented his own equation for hiring and creating high performing teams:

Environment + People (Smart + Kind) + Leadership (Autonomy + Mastery + Purpose) = High Performance = Happy People

Clark described "environment" as being about "hygiene factors," such as availability of suitable quiet areas for focused work, pain-free corporate technology, events such as hack days, and health factors. He said that finding people who are both smart and kind is a major part of his hiring approach. Clark defined "kind" as the ability to fit into a team, warning organisations to avoid hiring "brilliant jerks." He also explained "smart" as the ability to adapt to change, rather than expect a "laundry list of tick-boxes." Clark told of how a focus on individuals with an ability to learn gives them an advantage to move in line with rapidly changing best-fit technologies:

"We all work in technology; technology moves very quickly. If you're smart you can keep up. It means that when we hire people, if you know Puppet or Chef, it doesn't matter which you know because we can teach you. Don't just go for this laundry list of tick boxes."

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization introduced the concept of DDOs by examining companies "organized around the simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are more deeply aligned with people's strongest motive, which is to grow." DDOs advocate for organisations to intentionally focus on learning, growth, inclusion and development. Speaking on the Agile Uprising, Flemming explained the benefits of creating an intentional culture of growing individuals and the accompanying business benefits:

When you have a culture where people are stretching and growing, then you have a culture that's better able to handle adaptive challenges, that are the kind of challenges organisations are facing more and more; the more complex ambiguous problems, that people with a growth mindset can handle.

Flemming said that DDOs promote a learning focus which is organisation wide and not focused on any specific group within the organisation. He said that the 20th century promoted a practice of investing in the learning of "a small percentage of your workforce who you believed to be the high potentials," providing them with targeted learnings whilst most others only grew through coincidental learnings. In contrast he explained that to remain competitive in the 21st century, organisations should deliberately aim to develop everyone at every level, including the "c-suite, frontline folks and everyone in between." He said:

The "Deliberate" part of DDO says, why don't we go beyond happy accidents for people? Why don't we create an organisational environment where people experience higher levels of challenge and support every day.

Flemming spoke of how through interviewing people in workshops, he'd found that coincidental events such as falling into roles or complex situations often turn out to be pivotal points during individual careers. He said:

For most of us, those experiences are things which just kind of happened and we fell into it. If you unpack this a little bit, you notice there are common factors which enable growth experiences. They have to do with higher levels of challenge; stepping out of your comfort zone. And also higher levels of support; that you at least had one person, or maybe a group of people, who believed in you, supported you, encouraged you or held your hand at some point.

Elaborating on autonomy, mastery and purpose, Clark explained how ITV seeks to deliberately grow its teams by providing them with autonomy to make decisions, support in their journey to mastery and inspiring a sense of purpose. Explaining autonomy, Clark said:

You've hired all these smart and kind people, let them do smart and kind things. Don't micro-manage them. Earn trust by giving trust. Say 'what would you do?' Don't give them a set of directions. Give them a map, compass and a destination. They will get there themselves, and feel better for it. Also if they come into some roadworks, or some snow, which you couldn't have predicted, they'll get around it.

Clark explained mastery as the ability to become "brilliant at something through training and practice." He said that individuals want to be challenged and tested by their work, but that there is a Goldilocks level to aim for, where the work is neither mundane or so hard that they "burn themselves out trying to figure it out." He said these challenges should be "just hard enough; something that stretches them. Stuff that makes them think." Explaining the benefits Clark said that "maybe they learn a new skill or make a new contact." He described the mutual benefit to the organisation and the individuals, saying:

Ultimately, at the end of the day, you get your work done and they develop as an individual.

Flemming explained that an important part of creating a transparent DDO culture involves being able to "tolerate making risks and weakness public, so that colleagues can really support each other." He advocated "creating a workplace safe enough and demanding enough, that everyone comes out of hiding."

Describing high performing teams, Clark also stated that safety and learning is a core attribute. Clark said that you should be able to say 'I don't know' or 'I made a mistake' and not expect to get fired. He continued:

When people make a big expensive mistake, that's big expensive training and if you fire them, you don't get to capitalise on it.

Flemming described the DDO growth culture indicator, which gives companies "an MRI of the extent to which they have a growth culture." In this they question the extent to which leaders acknowledge "what they may have contributed to problems." He said that creating leader vulnerability "has enormous impact on the level of vulnerability in the rest of the organisation."

Speaking on the QCon London 2018 panel on leading great engineering cultures, Clark and a number of other leaders also spoke about creating organisations with progressive growth cultures. Clark also spoke of the importance of taking a data-driven approach to product and team feedback and being able to trace the data which led to learnings.

Flemming shared a number of anecdotes from a range of DDOs with a common theme of transparency and support from all levels of an organisation. He found that cognitive bias and limiting assumptions often silently stand in the way of growth and organisational transformation. Flemming expressed the importance of creating "liberating structures" to break away from constraining processes, allowing for application of the scientific method, and open feedback, to continuously test assumptions and grow across the organisation.

Clark closed with the conclusion that the high performing teams at ITV had been achieved through a focus on creating happy teams. The seven defining characteristics which he sees in the resulting high performing teams were explained as:

  • Awareness: "Know your own skills and abilities, and those of the teams around you."
  • Decisiveness: "Make a decision and stick to it, unless the circumstances change."
  • Collaboration: "We are more than the sum of our parts; so work closely together."
  • Expertise: "We should produce things that satisfy the requirements and satisfy them well. High quality is paramount. The things we do should do what they say they are going to do."
  • Efficiency: "We should also be efficient … you ain't gonna need it, until you do."
  • Engagement: "You want a high performing team to be engaged."
  • Alignment: "You know how you fit into the bigger picture. You know where you fit into the team. Where the team fits into the department and the department fits into the organisation, and you're roughly pushing in the same direction."

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