Cultural Vital Signs

December 2, 2007 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

Once in a while, I get the opportunity to work with a great team, in a company that ‘gets it’.

One of the things I do whenever I visit with a client company is to try to see if they would pass my employment test: would this be a place that would interest me as a place where I would want to work. Not as a means of surreptitiously identifying the next target for my CV, of course, but as a structured means of looking for clues about the culture there. My way of taking vital signs.

There are a number of criteria that I look for. All them come in shades of gray, rather than simply being checkable items from a list. In many ways, the things I look for at client sites are the same traits that I continuously strive for with my own business. Nobody I have ever encountered has absolutely nailed all of these things (myself included), and I would be surprised if anyone ever did. These don’t come in a rank prioritized order, but more the order that they become apparent in our engagements. The company I worked with last week (and several times in the past) scores highly on all counts.

The first thing I look for is their openness to working with others: fellow teammates, new people in the group, consultants coming in. I’ve been to places where the people are quite cold to outsiders, where management wears an obvious façade when discussing issues. New employees feel like they have been left to fend for themselves. There are often walls between groups and interpersonal issues that fester and overwhelm what needs to get done. My preference is for complete openness, in a positive way: a recognition that we have all come together for the greater good, that together we are all smarter than any one of us. Trust and respect abound, and this is readily apparent.

The work environment is another key element to consider. In many shops, management has the corner offices and the developers and testers are located and equipped as an afterthought. There is a clear hierarchy, a caste system that indicate whose opinions really matter, and the environment reflects this. While most places will readily provide the latest tools that are requested by the team, it can be another matter when it comes to resources that are scarce. I lean towards environments where everyone gets their share of fresh air, natural light, and room to flourish, regardless of rank. Interestingly, one thing that I have found is that workplaces that allow people to bring their dogs are naturally more open environments. There are several clients that do so (including the one I’m describing here), and all of them would be near the top of my list in this category.

Once we actually get moving on the engagement, the quality of work they are doing becomes apparent. We’re not talking the difference between playing with some cool disruptive technology and writing reports for a standard application. It’s more the novelty of new functionality over fixing stuff that was only half-done to begin with, it’s the fun of creative design over the drudgery of tinkering with the code until it seems to work. Nothing is mundane if you attack it with the attitude of doing the best job you can, and you will get the added benefit of being able to spend more of your time on the new and novel work.

Finally, one of the critical behaviors I look for is a hunger for ongoing learning. Some shops seem to force their people to take training that they don’t seem interested in. The excuses to leave the session come early, and those that are stuck can often be found surreptitiously keying their Blackberries. It is far more fun to work with a group that is engaged in the learning, actively listening and challenging me throughout the session, hungry for more.

Indeed, with this group, they have settled on a very practical collaborative development approach. While very heavily based on Scrum, they also respect the value of deep analysis for their products, and will sometimes invest in formal inspections for core components. They understand that there are times to go fast, and times to slow down in the name of quality. Every time I work with them I am energized, their senior management is actively engaged, and it is more like a shared exploration through the day’s topic than a lecture. Indeed, during a break I had a chat with someone that had just started that week. He saw the same things I did, and was very happy with his choice. Perhaps most revealing, he was actively engaged with everyone else in the room during the day – he already seemed to belong.

In working with the founders of this company several years ago, I know that all of these issues were conscious decisions and directions on their part. They have been successful in building a company that supports the people working there, and everyone benefits: the team, their clients, even the consultants that come in to engage them from time to time. – JB

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