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Discovering Culture through Artifacts: QCon London Q&A

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Behavior and values are two critical components to organizational culture; values denote what the organization believes in, and behaviors are rooted in those values, argued Mike McGarr, engineering leader at Slack. At QCon London 2019 he spoke about improving your understanding of an organization’s culture, the key components of culture, and what to look for in order to learn about the culture.

McGarr mentioned a number of reasons why someone would want to discover the culture of an organization. A simple reason is that you are interested in a job at an organization and want to know if you would "fit in", which really is code for "Do my values match their values? Will my behaviors be rewarded or punished?". You may be interested in joining another team or group within your organization, which will likely have its own organizational subculture, said McGarr, or you are already employed by the organization and want to better understand the culture, especially if the organization isn’t self-aware or explicit about their own values and beliefs.

Every team, organization or community exposes "artifacts", or tangible hints, regarding the true nature of their culture, said McGarr. There are numerous types of artifacts that we can use to gain a quick understanding of a culture. In his blog post discovering culture through artifacts he explored the artifacts "managers, behaviors, tools, and domain"; these artifacts can be explored if you want to discover a culture.

A leader has the power to change a culture rapidly through edicts, argued McGarr. Top down cultural changes can be met with resistance, but happen much faster than bottom up cultural changes, he said. Bottom up changes, however, have the benefit of acceptance from members of the culture.

InfoQ interviewed Mike McGarr about building a team culture, exploring artifacts that shape the culture of teams, and influencing culture.

InfoQ: How do you define organizational culture?

Mike McGarr: For years, I’ve been looking around for a great definition of organizational culture. I had stumbled upon my own definition some years back and was looking for expert insight. Where I am at now, I believe there are two extremely critical components to organizational culture: behavior and values. The values of a company denote what the organization believes in, to its core. Behaviors are rooted in values. Think of your own behavior. You may help an elderly person carry their groceries (behavior), and you do this because you believe in helping others (value). Take away this belief and your behavior is likely to change. Behaviors, and not values, are the rubric which an organization will use to determine how well individuals are integrating and performing within the culture. Rewards and punishments are mapped to specific behavior by individuals. It is this system of rewarding and punishing behaviors that defines an organization’s culture.

InfoQ: How do managers build team culture?

McGarr: In a few ways. First of all, managers have power over their team. This power often takes the form of rewards (pay raises, promotions, etc) and punishments (bad performance reviews, terminations, etc.). In both cases, a manager is rewarding and punishing members of his team based on the behavior. It is through these incentives and disincentives that the culture of a team, organization and/or company is defined. Members of the team learn through observation of which behavior is rewarded/punished, and tailor their own behavior in turn. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t matter what a manager says, but rather which behaviors they reward/punish.

A second means by which a manager can influence the culture of a team is by modeling the behavior they want the team to exhibit. One can learn a lot by observing the behavior of others, especially when that person is in a position of power or influence. I see this a lot when it comes to modeling behavior around giving and receiving feedback. Great managers know how to listen and thank people for feedback, and modeling this behavior for their team. This can extremely important for psychological safety within a team.

InfoQ: How do the tools and practices that teams use shape their culture?

McGarr: In my experience, processes and tools are often interesting cultural artifacts to explore. Starting with tools, they are used to solve a problem or automate a process. Ideally, tools are a tangible representation of an organization’s processes, those that are important enough to automate. Tools, especially those built for wide distribution, are built with certain assumptions and constraints. Even tools that are built to be extensible and flexible have constraints and limitations. These constraints can shape the processes the team uses to solve the problem. If a tool sufficiently influences the processes used by the team, this will in turn change their behavior. And sometimes, rarely, this could lead to a change in values/believes.

Let me give you an example. Years ago, I joined an organization that used a little-known continuous integration server to execute their hourly and nightly builds for their core product. I started espousing the benefits of true continuous integration and how we needed to start building every commit. Of course, this change in belief was met with resistance, as I should have expected. So I changed tactic and instead recommended that they shift to using Jenkins for CI. I made the pitch that Jenkins could solve the ’build every commit’ problem, as well as so many more challenges. I was lucky they trusted me to implement this solution. We setup Jenkins to build every commit from the code. This new tool (Jenkins) implemented a new process (building every commit). As a result, engineers were getting much faster feedback and no longer had to wait in long build queues. They started pushing smaller changes because they could get faster feedback (behavior change). Over time, many of them believed in the value of true continuous integration (value). So in this case, we were able to use a tool to change the engineering culture.

Processes are another great cultural artifact. An organizational process can provide insight into the beliefs of an organization. For instance, let’s take a look at an organization’s promotion process. If this process is delegated to the organization’s people managers, this could hint that the organization puts a lot of trust and autonomy on those managers and doesn’t believe in unnecessary processes. It could also hint at an organization’s lack of interest in addressing fairness in the promotion process. My point here is that this process is an artifact, but is only a piece of the puzzle. You can’t completely understand a culture by only gazing at a few artifacts alone. They are merely hints or clues.

InfoQ: What did you learn about influencing culture? What worked and what didn’t?

McGarr: Cultures have an immensely strong immune system, especially when you are talking about values. A potent organizational culture will do a spectacular job at suppressing divergence from the culture. Values, spoken or not, are core to the organization and people who have been indoctrinated into the culture are its white blood cells. If you try and attack culture head on, you will be met with massive resistance.

I have found that culture change is safer the farther you get from an organization’s core values and behaviors. For instance, even though tools can be seen as an artifact of an organization’s culture, it is much easier to propose a change in tool. This tool could be the catalyst for a cultural change, but a gradual one. This is very true for newer members of a culture, or outsiders (like consultants).

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