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Culture and Process: Making Change Happen

  1. Culture & Process Making Change Happen John Schrag Independent Consultant @jvschrag
  2. Agenda • Culture Eats Process for Breakfast • The Process You Want • Analyzing the Culture Gap • Shifting Culture
  3. Culture Eats Process for Breakfast Or, why “that won’t work here”
  4. culture process
  5. Change management is important but maybe not enough  Executive buy-in and support  Change champions  Clear attainable goals  Forums to listen and adapt  Comprehensive training  A communication plan  A roll-out plan  Compliance tracking
  6. What is culture? Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
  7. Really? “Our employees are like family” “Our employees are empowered to make decisions” “People are our greatest asset” “We want to hear your suggestions and opinions” “We care about our people” “Don’t be Evil” “We’re eco-friendly” “We have flexible work hours” “Workplace health and safety is our number one priority” “We are a truly international company” “We value diversity” “We care about work/life balance” “We are agile” “Your call is important to us” “Your privacy is important to us” “We care about accessibility”
  8. Toxic Culture
  9. The Process You Want
  10. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value
  11. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value empowerment
  12. Empowerment Cultural Value: Respect for expertise and research over HiPPO HiPPO = Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion
  13. Empowerment Cultural Value: Respect for expertise and research over HiPPO Signals to look for: • Is decision-making routinely delegated, or always kept at the top? • Do leaders support decisions that were delegated, or do they routinely override them? • Do teams ever build features based on an executive’s conversation with a golf buddy?
  14. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value More perspectives means better decision-making
  15. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value respect for diversity
  16. Diversity Signals to look for: • Are key perspectives solicited in decision-making? • Are meeting well facilitated to encourage participation? • Who is getting promoted? • During hiring, is diversity explicitly considered?
  17. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value psychological safety respect for diversity “…the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk- taking.” Amy Edmondson
  18. Stages of psychological safety • Included Do I belong here? Am I free to bring my whole self? • Safe to learn Will people think I’m incompetent if I make a mistake? Is it okay to ask for help? • Safe to contribute Will my suggestions be welcome? Will my ideas be ridiculed? • Safe to challenge the status quo Can I tell them they’re wrong?
  19. Psychological safety Signals to look for: • Are contrary opinions are elicited in meetings, or suppressed? • Are some things never talked about in meetings? • Are bad meeting behaviors tolerated? (talking over, insulting, mocking, ignoring, etc.) • Is meeting facilitation itself seen as an important skill? • Are managers held accountable for fostering psychological safety?
  20. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value respect for teams and teamwork
  21. Teams and teamwork Signals to look for: • Are teams held jointly accountable for all team outcomes? • Are high-performing teams kept together? • Are teams jointly praised and rewarded for team successes? • Is toxic behavior tolerated in “rock star” employees?
  22. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value empowerment innovation risk tolerance learning mindset
  23. Innovation & learning mindset Signals to look for: • Is your “strategy” just a feature list? • When experiments don’t pay off, is it seen as failure or learning? • Do people try to shift blame if an experiment fails? • Is senior approval required to take risks? • Are success measurements real or vanity metrics? • Do leaders talk about their risk portfolios?
  24. Autonomous, cross-functional teams Aligned on outcomes Continuously learning & responding Accountable for delivering value
  25. Cultural values that make everything better Employee Engagement Work/Life Balance Ethics
  26. Shifting Culture
  27. The Boss Middle Management Individual Contributor Start with psychological safety Be willing to change Talk about goals Start a conversation on culture Model best practices Protect your own staff Don’t panic Start the conversation Leave toxic situations
  28. How to shift culture Surgical Option 1. Remove people demonstrating toxic behavior 2. Coach the leaders who were complicit Image by Retama, licensed under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
  29. How to shift culture Braces 1. Talk about culture openly 2. Establish, demonstrate, and monitor desired behaviors 3. Align business practices 4. Keep up gentle steady pressure until you get there
  30. Wrap-up Technology needs good Design Design needs good Process Process needs good Culture
  31. He aha te mea nui te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people. Māori Proverb

Editor's Notes

  1. Hello, and welcome to Culture and Process: Making Change Happen. My name is John Schrag. I’m currently an independent consultant, but I worked for many years as a developer, a designer, an Agile Coach, and most recently leading a large design org at Autodesk before I retired from full-time work.
  2. Today I’m going to be talking about why it’s so important to pay attention to culture when you are trying to establish a good product process, and hopefully give you some tools to use at your own place of work. But I’ll start with a story.
  3. Twenty-one years ago, a year after the publication of the Agile Manifesto, my employer decided to adopt Agile, and brought in a trainer to teach everyone. Unfortunately for the design team – which I was a member of – the process we were taught did not include any design or UX research. It was just write code, show it to customers, and if they said okay you were done. After a lot of struggle and experimentation, my boss, Lynn Miller, my colleague Desiree Sy and I came up with ways to adapt the standard UX practices of the time to work in an Agile development framework. That process is now usually referred to as Dual-Track Agile. (Since that time it’s evolved quite a bit, but that’s another talk) There was a huge amount of interest in Dual-Track after we started presenting it at Agile and UX conferences. For years, Desiree and I were running sold-out seminars at conferences in various cities. We taught the process to hundreds of people from hundreds of companies. Over the years we’d hear back from people who adopted Dual-Track at their companies, and it became clear that the process was not always the slam-dunk we hoped it would be. In many companies it worked perfectly, as advertised. But we’d also hear of other companies where the process just wasn’t working. When people described to us the problems they were having, it was clear that the process they had adopted was not what we had taught them. There were distortions or additions or exceptions that prevented the process from delivering its intended benefits. My first reaction was “blame the user”. They were having trouble because they weren’t doing it right. But the truth was, they couldn’t do it right. As one person told Desiree “I wish you had never published that paper in the Journal of Usability Studies. Now our management is insisting we work this way, but they aren’t enabling us to work this way!” We started to understand that the problem wasn’t the process per se, it was the business environment around the process. It wasn’t the seed, it was the soil.
  4. I went on to lead two agile transformations at another employer; first for a small product team, and then for the whole division, before moving to a design leadership role. I got to see how it flourished on some teams and languished on others. Teams that were feature factories beforehand were still feature factories afterwards. We heard similar stories from people we knew in the Lean Startup and Balanced Team movements, and from people completely outside our industry. “Culture Eats Process” means this: when you introduce a new process, that process will warp itself to fit the culture it is introduced to. In particular, implicit power structures tend to be preserved. This isn’t out of any kind of malice, but rather because a process change doesn’t address the underlying beliefs and values of the culture that supported the previous status quo. If you are trying to drive a process change that will move the locus of power or decision making, you are going to run into problems. You need to pay attention to the unspoken rules and assumptions of your corporate culture.
  5. You might ask: “Isn’t this just change management?” It’s a fair question, and I want to be clear that good change management practice is super important for any successful process change at scale. There are a number of good books to help you with that. But it may not be enough if you new process is incompatible with your corporate culture.
  6. What do I mean by culture? There is a ton of literature on this, and I’m sure many of you are familiar with Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, or culture maps. But for today I’m using this definition, from Wikipedia. “Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices…” In any given culture, these all hang together coherently, so you can’t change one (like the practice) without feeling the pull of the others. Since attitudes and values are harder to shift, they tend to stay the same while practice warps. How do we know what a companies values are? Lots of companies will state their values explicitly, but those statements are generally performative.
  7. I asked on my socials for examples of empty value statements made by their employers, and was inundated within minutes. It seemed to really strike a nerve. The real culture of a workplace is understood by observing day to day actions – not words. New employees absorb these “cultural signals”, and after a while come to understand the way things work. Much of this is subconscious. By taking the time to examine the cultural signals at your own job, you can illuminate the underlying beliefs and attitudes that drive them, and address those directly.
  8. Before I go on, I want to touch briefly on toxic work culture. There has been a lot of press in recent years about it. I’m not going to focus on that today, because that topic is well-covered in many other places by people more qualified than me. By toxic culture, I’m talking about workplaces that tolerate antisocial behaviours with significant negative impact on people’s mental health. Things like bullying, gaslighting, ignoring people’s personal boundaries, sexual harassment, overt racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, fat-shaming, etc, etc. While researching this talk, I heard too many first-hand stories of this kind of culture. Toxic work culture is a real problem where it exists, as is the damage it causes, not only (most importantly) on the health and well-being of employees, but also on retention, innovation, and general company success. But as I said, I’m not going to focus on this today – instead, I want to focus on beliefs and values that may not be necessarily toxic, but that are incompatible with desireable product processes.
  9. And what do I mean by “desirable product process”? Well, I’m sure that you all have your own specific answer to that question, or maybe you are here at UXDX to figure it out.
  10. But for the sake of example, I’m going to assume that as a UXDX attendee, you probably think the best process involves: autonomous, cross-functional, teams, aligned on outcomes rather than feature lists, continuously learning and responding, and accountable for delivering real value to customers. You want to get the full value of your investment in design, product management, and engineering. For a process like this to function well, what do you need your corporate culture to value?
  11. For product teams to be autonomous, they need to be empowered. If your company has a command-and-control culture, this can be a particularly hard shift.
  12. For empowerment to happen, leaders have to trust their staff to do their jobs, and to manage risks. This is the main failure point for a lot of process change. I’ve seen supposedly Agile teams being managed by tracking their progress against a big fixed feature list. These teams did all the Agile rituals each sprint, but they were certainly not Agile. I talked to someone whose team spent three months building a feature because the golf buddy of a senior executive asked for it during one their games. Feature telemetry later showed it was only used about five times – imagine the opportunity cost. What’s stopping leaders from empowering their teams? Some leaders micromanage – because of their own insecurity or inexperience, or because they themselves are being micromanaged. Some leaders have low tolerance for unpredictability, and would rather follow an approved plan than respond to change. Some leaders have no idea how else they could manage Some leaders just assume that they are the smartest person in the room because they get paid the most. You’ll notice that you can’t fix any of these things through good change management. If this is a problem you are facing, leadership buy-in will not be enough -- you’ll need specific leadership coaching – or leadership change – to be successful.
  13. You probably already know if your company culture supports empowerment, but here are some cultural signals you can look for – are decisions routinely delegated? And do leaders support those delegated decisions, even if they are not the decision that leader would have made? Does you team ever build golf-based features?
  14. We want cross-functional teams, because having more perspectives on a situation leads to better decision-making. Of course, having to synthesize many different perspectives can also slow decisions down. Teresa Torres in her work on Continuous Discovery talks about how to balance decision speed and quality. I could recite a long list of bad decisions that were made because key perspectives were missing from the decision process, leading to unnecessary problems around capacity, privacy, accessibility, learnability, operating in foreign markets, and product acceptance. But having key perspectives represented – which is another way of saying ‘diversity’ -- is necessary but not sufficient to ensure decision quality, according to author Steven Johnson in his book “Farsighted”, which is about the science of decision-making.
  15. It’s not enough to have diversity of perspective; you need to have respect for that diversity. And what I mean by that is that every person on the decision-making team has to really understand and believe that other people know things they don’t, and that that knowledge is valuable. This is not always the case. We frequently hear about people’s perspectives being devalued because of their gender, their country of birth or even their size, but one thing that is less talked about in media is role chauvinism – the social power differences that can exist in an organization tied to people’s role. Aside from HiPPO decisions, there can be strong status differences between developers, designers, sales staff, customer support staff, and ux writers. And those status differences can vary widely between orgs, often depending on the role background of the CEO. The effect of this is that certain perspectives are excluded or discounted, even when they are key to particular decisions. I’ve seen a design team excluded from early feature work by a engineering director who assumed they would have nothing to contribute until the end when they could “make it pretty”. He wasn’t being malicious – under his incorrect belief system, he was saving them time and trouble. What he got was a pretty, unusable feature. I’ve seen a development team’s assessment of an acquired technology get completely disregarded because of short-term sales concerns, with the resulting decision costing the company far more than the short term gains.
  16. So, does your corporate culture really value diversity? There are number of signals you can look for. Are decision-making teams put together thoughtfully to represent key perspectives? Or is it always the usual suspects? Is meeting facilitation seen as an important skill? Or are meetings left to be free-for-alls? Are the people who are being promoted bringing more diversity to the leadership team? Or all they all buddies from the same frat? When hiring, is diversity considered as more than a checkbox item? Do hiring managers assume that foreign work experience is automatically inferior to local? Or do they think “wow, what can we learn from that?” I always ask my hiring panels “What perspective or knowledge will this candidate bring to the team that the team does not already have?” – and it can really change the conversation.
  17. It’s great to have diversity and inclusion, but good decision-making requires one more thing: psychological safety. Psychological safety is a term was coined by Dr Amy Edmondson at Harvard, who described it as “the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” When Google did a study on factors that drove team effectiveness, Psychological Safety showed up as the #1 differentiator between high and low performing teams.
  18. Dr. Timothy Clark in his book describes Psychological Safety as having four stages – feeling included, feeling safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo. In a psychologically safe team, people can have hard conversations respectfully, they can raise bad news, and they can drive innovation. This can’t happen in corporate cultures where disagreement is seen as disrespect, where toxic behaviour is tolerated, or where changing your mind is seen as weakness.
  19. If company culture values psychological safety, you will see norms in place to protect and promote it. You’ll see open conversations in meetings, no taboo topics, respect shown and enforced. People will pay attention to how meetings are actually run, and ensure they run well to encourage contribution, especially for difficult topics. Managers will be expected to foster psychological safety, and will need to show they can to be considered for raises or promotions. The ability to foster psychological safety is a coachable skill, and one that I really enjoy coaching.
  20. Let’s talk about teams and collaboration. A really common problem I see is companies say they want teamwork, while actively undermining it. A team isn’t just a group of individuals. It starts that way, but over time a good team builds trust, respect, and team norms that allow them to perform above and beyond. Companies that value teamwork respect that investment. On high-performing teams, individuals will at time need to sub-optimize their own work to support the success of the greater goals. If you evaluate people only on their individual work instead of the team outcomes, you disincentive teamwork. It turns collaboration into competition.
  21. Similarly, you need to hold teams jointly accountable for all outcomes. I know of one organization where developers were held accountable to development goals, which was defined as feature completion and bug fixes. Designers were held accountable for the usability of the product. Of course, the design team couldn’t impact the product without developers implementing their changes, but since design improvements didn’t count as features or bug fixes on this team, they were constantly deprioritized by developers. The incentives set up the team for failure. In your company, are high-performing teams kept together? Or are they routinely broken apart and reformed around new projects, throwing away all the investment made in developing team knowledge, trust, and norms? When teams do well, who gets the credit? I’ve seen situations where the credit goes just to the leader, or to one function within the team, or worse yet to a single “rock star” team member, which really demotivates everyone else who contributed to the joint success. In my opinion, the elevation of a “rock star” from outside a team can be damaging to teamwork. (This is different than a team internally recognizing the contributions of individual members). Rock stars often get disproportionate credit that ignores the less visible contributions of others, and a mystique that in the worst cases, lets them get away with toxic behaviour with impunity.
  22. In our idealized process, we want our autonomous teams to be aligned on the outcomes they are trying to create, rather than working to a fixed plan or feature list. The idea is to be continuously learning, experimenting, and finding the best ways to achieve those outcomes. This allows leadership to stay strategic while the teams can respond quickly to new learnings as they go. Clearly this requires empowerment, which we’ve already talked about. It also requires innovation – and that means risk tolerance and a learning mindset.
  23. The first cultural signal I look for here is in the corporate strategy: If your strategy is just a list of features you will build, then every course change will be a huge fight. That’s a big red flag. The other cultural signals I look for here are in how leadership responds to failure – and how everyone else responds to leadership’s response. Innovation requires risk-taking. Are people punished for an experiment that fails? Or is it seen as a normal part of learning? Other signals that risk-taking is not valued are behaviours like blame-shifting, people trying to avoid responsibility for risks, and people using vanity metrics so the results of an experiment always look good. I think it’s a good sign if you see leaders talking about their risk portfolios – it show that innovation is seen as an investment, not something to be feared.
  24. The last thing on our shortlist here is accountability, which is tied to autonomy and teamwork. We’ve already covered the cultural enablers, so I’ll move on.
  25. There are some cultural values that are needed no matter what kind of processes you want to run. You want a culture that values employee engagement. Engaged employees have higher performance and they stick around. Companies with high employee engagement have better shareholder return. People love their jobs. Engagement is determined by a lot of things – including psychological safety, relationships with co-workers, and the meaningfulness of the work. Engagement is limited by the energy people have left for work after they take care of life’s other necessities. If they are worried about what’s happening at home, they won’t be focused on work. For that reason, valuing work/life balance over personal sacrifice is important. Foolish managers think that squeezing more hours out of people means more productivity, but it’s usually the opposite. If you don’t care about your people, they won’t care about your goals. I hope it’s obvious that you should value ethics. The signals that your employer does not value ethics are pretty clear Is the company proud of their business model, or do they hide it? Are people told to “not worry about” certain regulations or standards? Are ethics ever discussed in meetings? Are dark patterns deliberately used in products? Lack of ethics can kill employee engagement, and make you lose your best employees. No one wants to work on the Death Star.
  26. Okay, so after you determine the cultural values you need to support your desired process, and you’ve done your gap analysis, what’s next? How do you fix those culture gaps? I wish at this point in the talk, I could just give you a handy list of five tips that tell you how to change your corporate culture. But it’s not that easy. Culture, fundamentally, is driven by the personalities and expectations of leadership. And you cannot shift it without leadership buy-in and active support. And even if you do shift it, that might not be enough if your leadership lacks the skills needed to oversee these kinds of processes. You may also need leadership coaching or training. So I have three messages for you, depending on where you sit in your organization.
  27. If you are the boss, this is on you. Your day to day actions and expectations will determine the culture of the org you manage. In other words, if you don’t change, the culture won’t. Start with psychological safety – if you establish that, then your staff will tell you where things are off the rails. You need to be able to hear where your behaviours may be getting in the way, and update your own skills. Every leader is a culture architect, like it or not, so I recommend that you do it with conscious intent, and talk openly about what you are trying to achieve. If you are middle management, you can to a large extent determine the culture inside your own team, but you can’t protect them from dysfunction where they collaborate outside your team. I’m hoping this presentation might help you start a conversation on culture and process with your bosses and peers. If you’re unlucky enough to work in a toxic environment, the best you can do is to shield your staff from the toxicity coming from above, but you will pay a heavy price in terms of personal stress doing so. If you are an individual contributor trying to drive process change, I’m hoping this talk may have illuminated the cause of some of your frustrations, and given you some new tools to analyse them. And I want to reassure you that you are not losing your mind – driving change is hard work no matter where you sit in an organization. If you are an individual contributor with a toxic boss, get out. No job is worth the damage that will inflict on your life. But let’s say you are in a position where you can drive culture change – what are the tools to do it?
  28. A few years ago I was speaking with a VP who had been recently hired by a large company with a toxic culture problem which had gotten some bad press. I asked him how he addressed the problem, and he said “I fired 75 people”. This is the first method of culture change, which I call the “surgical option”. It’s absolutely the right solution, when the problem is toxic individuals – people who for whatever reasons treat other human beings in disrespectful, gaslighting or dehumanizing ways. Sometimes organizations allow these people to remain because they have some special skill or position or they are someone’s relative – “Oh don’t mind Bob, he’s just like that, but he’s such a rock star engineer we can’t afford to lose him”. I guarantee you that there is no skill or ability that will make up for the internal damage done by keeping a toxic person on staff. I have experienced myself and heard from others how a team can rise and blossom just from the removal of a single toxic person What about Bob’s boss? This may be a person who is not themselves toxic, but who has been effectively complicit in Bob’s toxicity by allowing it to continue or excusing it. Often this person will be conflict-avoidant. These people probably don’t require the surgical option. What they need is leadership coaching, and accountability for fostering psychological safety. And they need to start sending a strong message that toxic behaviour will not be tolerated. But as I said before, in this talk I want to focus on non-toxic culture problems – beliefs, values, and practices that are just not a good fit for the processes you need for your business. And that brings us to the non-surgical option.
  29. I call this one “braces”. The idea here is to support the desired culture from all sides, with continuous steady pressure. This includes: Talk about culture openly -- admit where the current culture is weak, and paint a vision of how things need to be Establish, demonstrate, and monitor desired behaviors. In other words, be very deliberate about the cultural signals you are sending and tolerating. If leaders don’t walk the talk, nothing will change Align the business -- the desired culture should be reflected in hiring, promoting, employee evaluation and recognition, management training, how meetings are run, etc. Once you’ve changed all the cultural signals, this is what will be absorbed by new hires as your “real” culture. Keep up gentle steady pressure until you get there. It will take time, and without constant monitoring people will backslide. This can work, and I’ve seen it done successfully at scale. But it’s a years-long, steady effort, not an inspirational wall poster or one-time seminar that will be forgotten two days later.
  30. It’s been 38 years since I got my very first programming job, writing a word processor in 8086 assembly code. And now as I retire from full-time work into part-time consulting, I can look back at the trajectory of my career. I spent the first decade of my career trying to get my fellow developers to pay attention to Human Centred Design practice – what we now call UX -- Because I realized that technology needs good design to deliver value. After Agile happened, I realized how important it was to have strong processes for collaboration and product delivery, and spent years focused on that, from creating Dual-Track to adopting more current practices like Continuous Discovery and Continuous Delivery. And that process work led me to understand the importance of culture and team health, and that’s been my focus since becoming a Director of Experience Design. When I was young, I thought the most important thing was technology, but it turns out -- it was people all along.
  31. Healthy teams and healthy relationships are fundamental to good collaboration, smart decision-making, and meaningful innovation – things we all want in our processes. Leaders drive culture, so if you are leader, choose well the culture you are driving with your leadership. Be the place everyone wants to work. Remember that “Culture eats process” goes both ways – bad processes don’t thrive in a healthy culture – they get fixed. Thank you.