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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Continuing the Culture and Methods Trends Conversation

Continuing the Culture and Methods Trends Conversation

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods spoke to Ben Linders about current trends in the culture and methods space.

Key Takeaways

  • Psychological safety across the software engineering industry has been impacted over the last year
  • Great retrospectives need careful facilitation and an environment of trust
  • Great culture needs alignment around what great means for everyone in the organisation
  • Team building needs to be a continuous activity, not something that happens once at the beginning of an initiative
  • There are things which can be done to make remote and hybrid work more effective


Shane Hastie: Hey folks, QCon New York is returning to Brooklyn this June 13 to 15. Learn from over 80 senior software leaders at early adopter companies as they share their firsthand experiences implementing emerging trends and best practices. From practical techniques to pitfalls to avoid, you'll gain valuable insights to help you make better decisions and ensure you adopt the right organizational patterns and practices, whether you are a senior software developer, architect, or team lead.

QCon New York features over 75 technical talks across 15 tracks covering MLOps, software architectures, resilient security, staff plus engineering, and more to help you level up on what's next. Learn more at We hope to see you there.

Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today we are taking a slightly different slot. We recently recorded the Culture & Methods trends report and due to a technical glitch, we lost all of the good opinions and points of view from my colleague Ben Linders.

Introduction [01:17]

So Ben and I are sitting down today and we are just going to chat. We're going to talk about what we see as the trends and we'll let the conversation go where it goes. Ben, great to see you. It's been far too long.

Ben Linders: Thank you Shane. I was hoping to meet up at QCon. But unfortunately I couldn't make it this year, but for sure I'm going to be back next year and hope to see you in person again.

Shane Hastie: Indeed. I don't feel too sorry for you. I gathered that you were scuba diving in Indonesia, so it wasn't exactly a hard loss.

Ben Linders: No. That was great.

Shane Hastie: So Ben, at the high level, what are the big things that are happening that you are seeing in the work that you're out there doing and in the InfoQ articles that you're pulling together and the news that you're writing because you are one of our most prolific news writers and article contributors or editors in the Culture & Methods tracks. What's happening?

Psychological safety across the whole industry has been impacted over the last year [02:13]

Ben Linders: I think there's a couple of topics and trends that are happening in there. One of them being psychological safety, which is getting more and more attention. And I'm very happy to see that because I think it's an important topic which has taken a hit due to the pandemic and everything that happened after the pandemic. So a lot of people are feeling less safe in their daily work, have more or less lost their trust in the company. Also, due to the layoffs that's happening right now. Not just the layoffs but the way that they're happening. So psychological safety, safety in general has taken and hit and this is hurting teams all over the world. So it's an important topic to work on.

Another thing I still see is also retrospectives and people trying to get more benefit out of the retrospective and where retrospectives have been there a long time, I'm seeing a revival of people looking into better ways to do them and making them more productive. So there's a couple of trends that I'm seeing next to stuff like working on the culture in an organization, which is also very important. And finding ways to set up and to improve hybrid distributed remote team, which tends to be the norm right now in organization.

Shane Hastie: Some pretty big points there. So let's dig into psychological safety. It is a buzzword. It's a really important element. But I will say that I see it in many organizations almost as lip service. I don't see as much as I would like of that genuine blameless culture where it is safe to take a risk where I can make a mistake and know that my colleagues are going to support me rather than attack me. Where when something goes wrong, the manager or the leader or the VP or whomever doesn't turn around and say, who did this? They turn around and say, what can we learn from this? How can we prevent this? And we got a long way to go I think, to get there.

Ben Linders: Yeah, and that's my main worry. I think we were on the right track. If I look back at 2019, 2020, that was also when this topic started to get a lot of attention and teams working on that. It took a hit in 2020 and years past that. So I think the topic itself has only become more important right now given the situation that we are in. So there's even a higher need for teams and organizations in general to develop this.

And I agree with you when you talk about the lip service, because this has really come from the inside out. This is something that has to be a true belief to make it work in organizations. You can't just come in and do a couple of meetings and then expect people to be safe. It's a very complex behavior. So all the aspects that are in there that have to fit together to make this work and the only way that you can make them fit together if you really truly believe in it. At least that that's my opinion in this.

Shane Hastie: For our listeners who are in positions of influence, the technical influence, the technical leaders, how do they create that? How do they live that psychologically safe space?

Ways to improve psychological safety in your sphere of influence [05:17]

Ben Linders: Well, I think one of the things that they can do is start small with it. Start within your own group, your own team, somewhere of the meetings that you do yourself. And when you are convinced that this safety is important and you really want to live the safety, start with just a small group, and start working on it and start building on what you have already, instead of trying to initiate some kind of grant skills, skilled up safety because that's not going to work anyway. So explore what you have, build on that and pull out any successes that you have due to psychological safety.

If you see like, okay, here's a couple of learnings that we wouldn't have had if we didn't have that safety. Pull that out, celebrate it and show it to the people that this is what's really happening in your company. And I think it's also a topic that needs continuous attention in there. And one of the ways that I found that can help to work on this topic is to use things like coaching or gamification to work on certain aspects of psychological safety. Try to explore what's happening there in the company more or less as a way to make it safe to talk about psychological safety, to talk about some of the parts in there, to work some of the part in there and to step by step improve that safety within your own team, within your own group. And then look for ways to expand it or to spark a lot us to work on this. I think that's the way to approach this.

Shane Hastie: Work within your circle of influence. And I would add to that the honesty and vulnerability. So if I'm a team leader and I do slip and something's gone wrong and I turn around and say, "How could this have happened?" Acknowledging that no, that was not appropriate. I'm a human being as well. I make mistakes and I'm trying to get better at making this safe environment. So the vulnerability of the leader and showing that even if it's not something that they've built, the muscle, yet that they're working towards it, creates that safety within the team and then working beyond that.

Ben Linders: Yeah, and I think this can be valid because this also depends on what kind of behavior, what kind of culture is there in the company. Is it allowed for somebody who's in a leadership role, whether that's management leadership or technical leadership or an architect role, is it allow for somebody to say, "Hey, I fucked up." So we can learn from that. Is that okay in the company and in a lot of companies that will still be a challenge to do that.

Shane Hastie: I come back to the Gandhi quote, "Be the change that you want to see in the world."

Ben Linders: Exactly, exactly. Be an example.

Shane Hastie: Having given people the high bar to go and do this. And honestly, I know from working with many organizations, in my own personal situation, it takes time and it's an amazing thing to see when a team has that psychological safety as the foundation and they've become that high performing effective team. But one of the tools for moving towards high performance is retrospectives. And you mentioned people bringing in new ways, better ways of running retrospectives. This obviously is a topic that is close to your heart. What does a great retrospective look like?

Ways to have great retrospectives [08:32]

Ben Linders: Well, I think a great retrospective is something that more or less floats naturally, that has a lot of interaction of the people who are there in that retrospective, whether they're in the same room or online in a retrospective. But there's a lot of interaction which is inclusive for everybody who's there, which includes everybody's ideas, everybody's opinion is in there. And where the facilitator guides the team to understanding one or more issues at hand, one or more issues that they would like to work on, sensing the energy onto group in there and leading this towards maybe just one or two improvement action, one or two steps that the team wants to take and truly wants to do, to improve. So this is  a flow process. It's not a meeting. It's not something that you can do instead. It's something there where, as a facilitator of the team you go along on the flow looking for what can we learn and what can we get out of that and what can we improve.

And making it a flow means that this heavily depends on whoever is facilitating that retrospective to making this for whole team, making this happen together with the team, to sense what's happening there in the group in the room and to work with that to get the best possible outcome out of that. And I know that sounds very abstract to people, who want to just going to have the five steps and go in there and do the exercises. But I think at the end, it's much more about facilitation and having of course those tools, those different exercises, but how you facilitate the meeting to get true benefit out of that.

Shane Hastie: What would some examples of those tools, those exercises be?

Ben Linders: Some of the examples are to start for instance with the safety check to see how people feel in the room. Having them do a vote on that and reflect back to the team on what the safety there in the room. There could be tools in there to exploit the problem at hand, aware that could be using some kind of metaphor. One of the popular ones for instance being the sailboat, but there are many others. But using a metaphor to bring out ideas in there. Looking at, okay, what's the most important thing that we really want to improve? Using some kind of dot voting or consensus to align on just one or two topics in there and then agree on what you want to do next and that what you want to do next, make it as small and as specific as possible.

So there's different kind of exercises around there and there are plenty of exercises that you can use. So it's not just one exercise, it's actually a combination of exercises that you'll use to get too good result out of that retrospective.

Shane Hastie: I think you and I sit in the space of retrospectives are such an important part of team evolution, team formation and so forth. But for those who perhaps are not as aware of these practices, why should somebody, a team leader or a team member encourage the retrospective? How is it different from, I don't know, the post-implementation review that we are also familiar with?

Retrospectives are not the only improvement tool for teams [11:30]

Ben Linders: Well, this is actually something where I would wonder should you really impose or maybe even encourage it. What you're looking for is a way for teams to deal with the issues that they are facing. And it could be a retrospective meeting, which is the way that that's now been popularized in Agile. But basically it can be any point in time where you step back from the situation, take a little bit of distance and look at, "Okay, what's happening here? What can we learn from this and how can we better deal with the situation that we are facing right now?"

So this is much more about a mindset of, Okay, we're not going to accept the situation as this, but we as a group, as a team, are in control and if there's something that's bothering us, we want to work on that. And taking the time for that, rather than saying “you should be doing retrospectives."

And what you see in more mature teams actually is that they still do the retrospectives but they do also a lot of improvement and reflection sessions and putting a stop somewhere halfway meeting like, "Hey, what's happening in here and can we learn from that?"

They do it in a much more different way, but what you actually seeing there are things like the lean approach and Toyota and somebody pulling an andon line, "Hey, we're having a problem here, we should work on that."

So it's a different kind of thinking that you would like to encourage. If you want to breathe it the retrospective and then again, do it small in the beginning, do it within your team, within that cell of safety that you have already can help you to create this culture. But at the end it's much more than just doing the meetings. It's going to happen much more naturally in high matured team. That's what I see.

Shane Hastie: Yeah, retrospect is incredibly valuable in terms of creating that environment that Senge talks about, the learning organization. What else makes a good culture and how do we encourage great culture?

Ways to encourage great culture [13:19]

Ben Linders: I think one of the ways to encourage a great culture is to first align on what would great meaning for your team or your organization. So what are the kind of things that you would like to see in your culture? What are the kind of things that are important? And one of the exercise that I often do with team when I start working with them on culture is to give them a couple of cards that I pull from a deck on culture cards and just ask them to pull out cards in there. Those are cards with just one word, which for them are important. Which they will say, yeah, this is something that I would like to see in my team. This is some kind of behavior, some kind of thing, mindset, that important for accomplishing our goals because if you want to create a great culture, I think it's important to align on what are the important things in there that you really want to see in there.

And this can be different things for different teams, for different organizations. It's much more important to have some alignment and then to see, "Okay, this is something that we want to improve, let's work on that." Than trying to define big culture thing and trying to implement that.

Shane Hastie: Again, we're in the be the space that you want to be, be the change that you want to see.

The importance and value of focus [14:29]

Ben Linders: Exactly. And the other thing is, and this is something that I see it in retrospectives, I  see it in a lot of things I work with teams, is focus. You want to explore the issues. So you want to go broad initially to get an overall picture and overall view to start. But then you want to narrow it down to, "Okay, what is it that we're going to work on right now? What's most important to us right now? Which is actually when you think about it, pretty agile. You're doing the same stuff with your team as you would like to do for your customer. What's the most important value that we want to deliver? Okay, let's make sure that we work on that stuff. Let's make sure that we have those user stories  prioritized to deliver this to our customer.

The same way of thinking applies to your team. What's the most important thing that we're struggling with right now? What it is that we would like to see different tomorrow or next week and how can we make that change possible? 'Cause again, focusing that energy and I think what's important in there is just to start working that there's no right or wrong. And this is where I see a lot of agile coaches and scrum masters who are struggling because they have an idea like, this is what's important for this team, this is what they should be doing, this is what they should be struggling with. And I think in the end it's much more important what the team feels that they're struggling with than what the scrum master thinks or what the agile coach thinks that the team should be improving.

I tend to say the team is always right even if they're wrong, because they're going to figure out along the way that they improve the wrong thing and they're going to find out what's the right thing to improve. But even if they start working on what turns out to be the wrong thing, it's still going to be a learning experience. As long as you keep small enough, you're not wasting a lot of time.

Avoiding hybrid hell [16:06]

Shane Hastie: That gives us a bit of a segue. The team. Our teams today are hybrid and remote. The unit of value. The unit of value delivery for most organizations now, is a team. It's not the single hero, it's not the individual contributor, it's the work of a team that brings great products to life in the world. And I've certainly seen with the shift through the pandemic and beyond that shift into remote and now into hybrid where sometimes I would look at hybrid and say it's hybrid hell.

People don't want to commute to the office to spend seven hours on Zoom calls. The stats, the researcher is saying most knowledge workers want to get together in person occasionally, but they want to be able to work remotely most of the time. This specific numbers are different and different people have different contexts of course. But how do we make this hybrid stuff and the remote work? How do we retain the great teamwork when we start working in this remote and hybrid way?

Ben Linders: It starts with laying the foundations for your teams, which is mostly in the relationship and people getting to know each other. And what I see as a difference here is that traditionally, these are things that are done. For instance, in project by organizing one or two kickoff days, getting everybody together working on, "Okay, what is this project about?" Also working on, "What is this team about?" So trying to build this team culture in a couple of days and then the project was taking off. If you look at the remote and hybrid team, you need to take a different approach on that. First of all, half day or even longer sessions online are simply not going to work. They exhaust people, it's going to be too much. So you need to take this much more gradually and pick out different aspects over a longer period to build up that team.

That makes it a little bit more challenging. It's easier to plan just two days at the start of your project, build your team. "Okay. Now we're a team, now it's all going to happen." That's not the way that it works remotely. So team building is going to be a continuous aspect of your organization, of your team, not something you can just do with the start and then you're done. So you have to think about activities that you can do to do this team building and do them along the way. Create things in your environment that would support us. I see things like virtual coffee machines or chat channels that people are having open, separate chat channels that are not on the technical work but people can share anything they would like to share. So that's the kind of stuff that you can think about.

People who say we start off a meeting but we always use the first five to 10 minutes, whatever suits us, to just have some chats instead of diving into the topic immediately. And we're not going to end after an hour but we're going end after 45 or 50 minutes max because people going to be exhausted in that meeting and they need time to recover if they have a next meeting. And preferably you don't want to have back to back meetings. Changing your meetings instead of having a meeting and discussing stuff to co-creating sessions where you working together on something. And it could be as easy as working together in a Google Doc to creating an outline or crafting a document or setting up a statement that you want to use for your team that could work already, but making it into an exercise for people or actively participating instead of discussing stuff.

Remote and asynchronous teams can be very effective [19:36]

Where the big advantage, by the way, is you don't need to make notes, but you got notes already at the end of the meeting. So it'll also save you time. These are the kind of things that you can do and be aware that building your team, building your remote and hybrid team is going to take longer, but if you do it well, it can even be a stronger team. I often refer to the example of InfoQ and how we are spread out. Let's be honest, we've seen each other now two times, three times in person, in 10 years.

Shane Hastie: Yes. I think that's it. We've worked together for 10 years.

Ben Linders: Exactly. And I would say that we are a team, we feel how we think about stuff. I know if I sent you proposal, I know that I got a fair chance to get it accepted or not and I know what's going to be the struggle in there. We know what's important. We’ve built up a relationship in our team and we only seen each other three times during those 10 years. So I think we're the living example that you can build teams while working remotely on different sides of the globe. It can be done if you take a time for it, you can do it.

Shane Hastie: And interestingly, one of the trends that we identified was the asynchronous element of the work. And if I think of the way that we as the Culture & Methods team on InfoQ work, it is largely asynchronous. We're communicating using the asynchronous tools. Email is most common, but we also use Slack. And the fact that we are time zone offset by 12 hours or more doesn't matter. We've got a clear understanding of what our,I would almost call it an informal SLA, between us in terms of how long we take to respond.

Ben Linders: Shared purpose.

Shane Hastie: Shared purpose, common goals. And then we have the opportunities for synchronous work like this. We have a few of these calls a year and every now and then, again, and as you say, I think it's been three times in the 10 years that we've worked together, we've actually got together in person. And when we do that, it's fantastic. Sitting down and sharing food and sharing the same physical space. There's something special about it, but we are an effective team.

Ben Linders: Exactly. And this is something also which has been built over time. Because you work on this relationship, you share your thoughts, you share your ideas, like this is something I'm wondering about. I share what my thoughts are and you respond to that and we both feel safe enough to say how we feel about stuff. And the safety for me, starting from trust by default. So instead of saying I need to build up trust with people within the institution, I started like, I assume that trust is there. I assume that we're working on a common goal. I just share my thoughts, I share my ideas and I feel safe enough to say how I feel about stuff. And I trust that you are the other persons also there to do a good job.

And if you start from that assumption, what I've seen, and this works for working together with the InfoQ editors and team, but also with the authors that I work with and the interviews that I do, basically, that trust is actually there, that's 99 out of 100 times that works out fine, probably even more. And it saves you a lot of work or worries just assume that the trust are there and start working from that.

Supporting remote participants in hybrid working sessions [22:39]

Shane Hastie: So yeah, teamwork and teamwork can and does work effectively in that remote environment and in the hybrid. The hybrid space I will say is often harder than the fully remote because one of the hardest things is when you've got a group of people coming together in person and some maybe two or three or more are not there with them and they're trying to connect often through poor technology or low bandwidths.

In my experience, that quickly devolves into a bit of an us and them situation, unfortunately.

Ben Linders: Yes

Shane Hastie: Now, I've got some ideas about things that we can do in teams to try and overcome some of that. My general advice is don't do it at all. Have everyone remote or everyone in person. But if you have to do something like that where you've got a few people remote, then make sure that the remote people have an in person buddy who is there to make sure not just to participate on their own behalf, but they are tasked with making sure that their buddy's voice is heard consistently.

Ben Linders: So it's much more facilitation role.

Shane Hastie: Much, much more facilitation and it's harder. These hybrid sessions in my experience are a lot harder to do. I had a request recently to actually teach a class like that and I refused. We just couldn't do it. I would rather do the whole learning experience remotely because we've figured out how to do those well now. There's the tools, the technology, we understand how to build a good remote learning experience and we understand how to build a good in-person learning experience, but trying to do a hybrid just don't do it.

Ben Linders: Yes. I had the same request for a workshop also at a conference and I came up with the same solution. Like, okay, that's not going to work. Either we're going to go fully remote or fully on site. And since fully on site is not an option because a couple of people are remote, then we go fully remote. So I actually did the workshop for my hotel room and went into lunch and saw a couple of people who were attending on my workshop during lunch. Then we all went back to our room again and did it again fully remotely. But that's the way it works. It doesn't work hybrid.

Shane Hastie: Yeah, absolutely. So what have you got coming up? What are the interesting things in your pipeline? Because this is going to go out probably sometime in May. What are the hints that we can give our listeners who watch out for the articles that Ben's got in his pipe?

Articles that Ben has coming out soon [25:19]

Ben Linders: If you look at the articles, there's stuff coming up on sustainability, which is also a very important topic. I see more and more people who are working on this. There's initiatives on the standardization on a lot of support from the open source also on sustainability. So there's going to be a couple of articles on that.

There's stuff ongoing on culture change, partly Agile, partly DevOps, where people are looking for, okay, it's not just the technical stuff that we are changing, but if you want to have a true adoption of Agile, of also DevOps techniques, we also need to work on the culture to make that succeed. So that's the kind of things that are ongoing. I think these are the main topics right now.

I'm trying to solicitate some articles on leadership. Hopefully, something on leading without blame. So there's different topics also in the leadership area to developing. The thing in there, which makes it differently from a lot of stuff that we are doing already or a lot of stuff that's known already.

By the way, there's a big gap between what's known and what we're doing. There's a lot of things which we know but have not been adopted generally already in the industries. So you're looking for a way to bring out those golden nuggets to the people like, "Hey, this is something that can be done and by the way, this is how people are doing it. This is something we learn from."

That's the kind of stuff that I think that really provides value to the InfoQ readers. If you can show them how others have been doing it and what they tried out, what they learned and where they failed. Also, where it went wrong and how they responded to that. So that's the kind of stuff that I'd like to bring out.

Shane Hastie: Well Ben, it's been great to be together synchronously, have this great conversation. Really just want to acknowledge the great work that you do on InfoQ. The articles that you're bringing. The news that you're writing, and just to say thank you and encourage our audience to follow Ben Linders. He's got good stuff. Thanks so much.

Ben Linders: Thank you.


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