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Building and Maintaining a Creative and Collaborative Engineering Culture



Shane Hastie explores what we have learned about creating environments where engineering teams can be at their most effective irrespective of where they work - remotely, in-person or hybrid.


Shane Hastie leads the Culture & Methods editorial team for where he hosts the weekly InfoQ Culture Podcast. Over the last 30+ years, he has been a practitioner and leader of developers, testers, trainers, project managers and business analysts, helping teams to deliver results that align with overall business objectives. He is an ICF registered Professional Coach.

About the conference

Senior software developers rely on the InfoQ community to keep ahead of the adoption curve. Our community editors aim to ensure that our readers never miss out on important trends. One of the main reasons software architects and engineers tell us they keep coming back to InfoQ is because they trust the information provided and selected by their peers.


Hastie: I'm Shane Hastie. I'm the lead editor for culture and methods on I'm the host of the weekly Engineering Culture podcast. In this presentation, we're going to explore what it means to build and maintain a creative and collaborative engineering culture. I'm drawing on the conversations, the podcasts, the articles, the news, the content from over the last couple of years.

The Annual Trend Report

A starting point for us at InfoQ, is the Annual Trend Report. We put this together once a year, at least, sometimes more frequently. Each of the domains on InfoQ explores what they are seeing. This is done by talking to the editors and by looking at the content that we have, and the content that is forthcoming. We're looking for the topics that are over on the left of this graph that you see here, the things that are of interest to the innovators and the early adopters. Because we believe by the time it moves across to the right, InfoQ will have a large body of content that people can then draw upon. Taking the perspective of information Robin Hoods going out there, finding what's happening, and then presenting it to the world through the InfoQ podcasts, newsletters, website, and all of the other ways that we make this content available to you the public.

When we looked at what was happening in 2021, we put some important topics over on the left. Some of these are the ones that I'm going to go a bit deeper into, as we talk through, things like team topologies, the humanistic workplaces, good remote work. I do want to point out, we've distinguished there between good remote work and bad remote work. The bad remote work, sadly, is something we see in all too many organizations. Whereas there are some things that the better organizations, those who have a more effective culture are getting right. Genuine diversity and inclusion, rather than lip service. Things like team self-selection, the focus on professionalism and ethics. There's a lot here. I would also point you to every one of the slides, which you can download the content of, has the links to the articles on InfoQ for you to explore further.

What Is Culture?

Let's get into it. Given that this is about culture, it's probably a good place to start, is, what is happening in culture? What is culture? Johanna Rothman talks about culture as the lowest common denominator of the behavior that is accepted in the workplace. Culture cascades down from the leadership, from the top. It's what the executives and the leaders put up with. James and Suzanne Robertson have written a book. The book is called, "Happy to Work Here." We have an article that explores some of the topics from that, in there. It talks to the killers, the improvers, and the drivers of culture. Humans are still the most important components of culture. We've got technology and we've got all sorts of other things. Culture is not this happy, clappy, feel good thing. Culture directly impacts organizational performance, both of the individual, the team, and the overall individual level. In their article and in their work, James and Suzanne identified six drivers for workplace culture that can be identified and can then be deliberately worked with. These drivers are the perceived value of people. The perceived nature of time. Safety and security. The concept of navigation by grownups, treat people like responsible adults. The bond of collective confidence. The perceived value of excellence. Then, beneficence, the way that we treat each other in the workplace.

5 Ways to Help Create Psychological Safety

Some useful pointers in there, things to consider, and what are the drivers, killers, improvers in your organizational culture that you can work with and work on to create this environment of psychological safety. We have quite a lot of content on psychological safety. Going back to the original Google article, or articles about the original Google research, the project Aristotle work. I found this image that really conveys some key factors that need to be in place to enable psychological safety in the workplace. One, make it an explicit priority. This is not something that just happens. If you're a team lead, if you're a manager, if you're an executive, you have to call it out, and you need to model it yourself. You need to create space to facilitate everyone in the team speaking out. We need to have our shared norms, establish the ways that we approach, particularly failure. Failure should be a learning opportunity rather than a blame opportunity. This is incredibly important to this psychologically safe space. Create space for new ideas. Yes, embrace the wild ideas. Embrace the productive conflict. This is hard. We'll talk a bit later on about radical candor, but this ability to create a space where people can disagree respectfully. Psychological safety is certainly not new. It was first spoken about in the literature in 1991. What we have seen is a lot more research of how important psychological safety is to team effectiveness and through that, again, to the organizational overall effectiveness.


Another important topic that brings these humanistic aspects into play is mindfulness. The concept of being aware of yourself and being aware of the system that you are part of, this psychological complex system. Bringing that awareness to our interaction, our collaboration, our conversations with our teammates, with our stakeholders, with our colleagues in the greater organization. Another thing, and there's a podcast that we reference here, bringing the concept of playfulness into the workplace. Play is a great place to learn, because when we are in this state of play, we're generally relaxed, open, and curious. That enables it open up all the mental pathways, it builds on that safety, and it enables us to be truly creative, in the knowledge worker economy of today, and of course, in the InfoQ audience target focus. This human creativity is where the bulk of value comes from. Mindfulness is not just keeping calm. It's a habit of deep reflection. One of the benefits of building this habit is it enables us to get into the state of flow more effectively. This flow state is so important for creative problem solving.

Mental Wellness as a Focus

Another important factor that we see trending is mental wellness. The image up on the screen here is, how are you, really? Australia and New Zealand recently had a program, an initiative where people were looking at and asking that question of each other. How are you, really? Making it again safe to have the conversation. The topics around mental illness are shrouded in taboo, and it hinders. Yet at any point in time, 1 in 5 of us is going to be struggling with some sort of a mental health challenge. We've seen studies through the pandemic era that that actually got as high as 1 in 3. Because the tension that we have been surrounded by, through the aftermath and going through and continuing to go through the lockdowns and the uncertainty and the fear surrounding COVID-19 has been incredibly pressurizing. If we go back to the beginning of 2020, IT teams and enterprise software development groups and organizations, we stepped up. Within days, we shifted from fully in-person to fully remote for many organizations. We'd set up the infrastructure to support our colleagues in the wider organizations. That came with a tremendous amount of pressure. The burnout that is sitting there nascent in our systems today is something we need to be able to explore and to expose, and to truly support each other as we build this focus on mental wellness.

Diversity and Inclusion

Part of being a safe space is embracing diversity and inclusion. We've had some thoughts, a bias, I will say, that in software development, we've adopted agile methods as our approach to building software. There's been a lot of benefit from that. We can see and there are very clear measurable outcomes that we can point to for organizations. One of the underlying assumptions is, we're taking an agile approach, so of course, we're more inclusive and we're more welcoming. Sadly, that's not really true. There's a survey done by the Business Agility Institute, and I've got a podcast episode where we explore it, 26% of respondents to that survey, believe that agile approaches actively create exclusion and inequality in the ways of working. Think just about some of the mental perspectives, the introvert versus extrovert. For some of us standing up at the daily standup and saying, what have I done? What will I do? What's in my way? Can be incredibly scary. It's not just thinking about the big visible chunks of diversity and inclusion, although these are something we must tackle. Our industry has a terrible history of not embracing people of color, people who are different to the norm like me. Certainly, the gender imbalances are things that have to be addressed and addressed soon.

If we think about just the simple difference in pay. In New Zealand, we've recently marked the day. It was in the middle of November, where basically women are working for the rest of the year for nothing, because of the imbalance, around about 9% salary differential that exists across the economy as a whole. These differentials still exist in information technology. We have to fix these. We have to become truly inclusive, inviting, and as the sign says there, stand with you and make it safe, for different to be, not just accepted, but valued in our organizations. Because there is solid research that shows the more diversity there is on a team, the more creative problem solving that team is able to do. Let's bring in that diversity of the visible things, but also of the cognitive differences, the attitudinal differences, touching back on the mental health. How do we embrace people that are perhaps on the autism spectrum, and make a safe space for all of us?


That safe space starts with how we bring people in to our organization. In my own experience, I have arrived for a new job, excited, interested, looking forward to working in this great environment. Gone up to the receptionist, this was when we were working in-person, and, "Hi, I'm Shane. I'm here to meet with so and so and start my new job here. What's it like working here?" "Shane, hold on, let me make some phone calls. So and so is not here yet. Why don't you wait over there, and let me try and find." It took two hours to get into the building on my first day of work. Then it took a week to get a computer I could do work with. By that time, the excitement that I had felt at the beginning had turned into an unhealthy skepticism. I did not stay long at that organization. How do we change that onboarding process to one that is truly welcoming and bringing people into our organization with that excitement, with that delight, and make that beginning of their relationship really strong? Then building on that.

Employee Experience and Developer Effectiveness

Building on that into the deeper employee experience and developer experience. The developer experience is, how do we remove the friction? How do we make it simple? Wherever friction exists, just automate it away or make it easy to point it out and change the process, or change the system. Reduce that cognitive load so that these great engineers that we're employing are able to do great engineering, and not spend their time fighting with the tools and the tooling and the system and the process that sits around them. Again, some great organizations are doing really interesting things about making developer experience more effective. We got a number of talks and articles on InfoQ to explore that.

Team Self-Selection

One of the ways that we're seeing is through changing the way teams are formed. This book by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole, "Creating Great Teams: How Self-Selection Let's People Excel," talks about ways to mindfully, deliberately allow people to choose which team they want to work on, and what work excites them. By bringing them through the self-selection process. The article reference there is a case study of how Redgate software have done this. They have a deliberate reteaming process on a regular basis, which allows the members of a team to strongly influence what the structures will be, but also what work they're going to work on. Obviously, there are frames, there are guidelines, and there are criteria that leadership puts out. The teams themselves choose who they're going to work with, what product they're going to work on, and what approach they're going to take. This empowerment is one of the things that again builds this creative, collaborative, strong culture in the organization. We trust people in their daily lives to make incredibly strong and important decisions, like who they're going to marry, whether they're going to have children, whether they're going to buy a house. These decisions are pretty much always much bigger than anything that we get faced with at work. Yet, at work, we often treat people largely like kindergarten students. How do we lift that? Self-selection is one mode.

Leaders as Coaches and Facilitators

This requires a very big shift in the way our leaders show up. This concept of a leader as a coach as a facilitator, leading with empathy rather than with command and control. We've heard the term for years, servant leadership. One that I've heard recently that really resonates me is host leadership. If you think about the host at an event, at a party, we've invited people into our home, the host is there. They're part of the group, but they're also facilitating and moving everything forward. How can I show up as a leader, as a host for the people that I am supporting, serving, bringing along on their journey, and this empathic approach? In the article, the authors say that empathy has emerged as a panacea to combat the anguish and suffering of the global pandemic, and its impact on people and teams. Anyone in the organization can show up with that empathy.

Radical Candor

If we've got all of these things, we're able to step into a space of what Kim Scott calls radical candor. This is the behavior that comes about when people care personally and are able to challenge directly in a relationship. It builds on that platform of psychological safety that we're touching on all the way through here. It enables us to have the hard conversations about, how well are we really doing? What is happening in this? What did happen here? How do we make sure that if something went wrong, it doesn't go wrong again? What is broken in the system? What is missing in your knowledge? It requires vulnerability on all of us. Again, referring right back to the beginning, this culture cascades down. The importance of demonstrating the behavior that you want to see in others when you are in that position of influence and power.

New Approaches, New Structures

We've got a whole lot on InfoQ about different models, and styles, and approaches. I will do the personal place commercial here, the "#noprojects" book is a mini book that can be downloaded from InfoQ, where myself and Evan Leybourn talk about moving from project cultures to product and value stream based cultures. We've got a lot of articles that talk about the different structures of organizations, bringing in sociocracy, holacracy. Jutta Eckstein and John Buck work on BOSSA nova, Beyond Budgeting, Open Space, Sociocracy, and Agile together, combining all of those things. There's a lot of content, a lot of information available for you to explore how to structure teams and organizations to become their most effective.

One of things that I will certainly point to, is the work by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais on "Team Topologies". Manuel is one of the InfoQ editor team. A wonderful book. They offer a whole lot of supporting stuff around that. Organizing business and technology teams for fast flow. The book provides a good model, a simple step by step guide for looking at organizational design for team interaction. It's a simple model, but like with many simple things, it's really hard to get right. Start by thinking about, what are the outcomes we want to achieve? Then move forward to, how do we need to structure the teams that we work in and with, in order to achieve those outcomes?

Joyous Workplaces

We've got to focus on creating joyful workplaces. This is a book by Richard Sheridan, the, "Chief Joy Officer," his first book with joy incorporated. We got a series of articles where we've explored what happens at Menlo Innovations, the organization founded by Richard Sheridan. It was founded with a philosophy of, how do we create an organizational culture of joy in work? This is the joy, the deep satisfaction of doing important things with people that I care about, and that I like. Purpose driven, truly empowerment, and a situation where the role of the leader is to make other people 10 times better. To really create that space for teams and individuals to become truly effective and to hold the space for joyous workplaces.

Ethics and Tech for Good - Being Good Global Citizens

A challenge for our industry is ethics. There's a lot of gaps. A lot of things not being done well in the ethical space today. As an industry, it's time we actually did step up. At InfoQ, we've been raising the topic of ethics for a while. You can see some of these articles go back to 2018, 2019. We're revisiting this, when we see things that are examples of unethical behavior, and also, when we start to shore up the good behaviors. How do we start to apply tech for good?

There's a lot of articles around that. Most of us, most people in the software industry have not come across the codes of professional conduct that do exist for our industry. The Association of Computing Machinery, the ACM has a code of ethics on professional conduct, for people in our industry. How many of us have read it? How many of us have signed up to it? How many of us reference it when we are building our products? Do we pause and ask ourselves, how could this be misused? When I'm writing this block of code, what is the ethical implication of this code running in the wild? How do I for instance, make it auditable, make it visible? When we think of AI algorithms, there's been a lot of work about transparency into those. Another aspect that we touch on here is climate change. As an industry, we have a bigger carbon footprint than aviation. What are we doing to reduce that carbon footprint? What can we do to shift for instance the cloud service providers that we're using? Are we putting pressure on them to use green energy? The big and fairly controversial one, the Bitcoin mining. How much power? What is the value that this is adding to society? There is a whole load of things we need to hold up and ask ourselves. Not, can I do this? Should I do this? Ethical behavior is hard, but we need to start being good global citizens.

What's Next?

That was the wrap-up of some of the important topics that we feel do build towards a creative and collaborative engineering culture. I want to leave you with this question, where are you going next? What are you doing to transform yourself, if you want to achieve sustainable organizational and societal transformation? It starts with you. I want you to mindfully reflect, where are you now? Where do you want to be in the future? Another resource that you can use is this, Designing Your Culture eMag that's available on InfoQ.


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Recorded at:

Dec 21, 2021