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Coming Up to Speed Part 7: Team Culture

I spoke of corporate culture in Part 6 of my Coming Up to Speed series. Why do I need a separate article about team culture? Isn’t team culture part of the corporate culture?

Good questions, Tom! I’m glad you asked. The reason is simple: teams are central to agile practice. Most of the agile principles center around how teams operate. While the corporate culture supports teams, they work primarily independently.

I have been on many teams—some good and some not so much. The great teams I’ve been a member of all had their own culture: a microcosm within an ecosystem. Culture creates the bond of identity and trust necessary for high performance.

There are many subtleties to team culture. Teaching them to a new team member is challenging. My strategy is to encourage all the incumbent team members to be on the lookout for learning opportunities as we go. Team culture anti-patterns are easy to spot but hard to predefine.

One of my teams had a new team member with many good ideas. We were delighted that he was comfortable sharing his thoughts when he had them. In time, I noticed that he aggressively defended his thesis even though other team members disagreed. I chatted with him about how much everyone appreciated his contributions. I added that it didn’t seem he was listening to others’ concerns and giving them fair consideration. I also pointed out our penchant for evidence and suggested that he make sure he was well-armed with it to defend his views.

He thanked me for sharing my insights. When organizations hire great people, they want to make significant contributions. They may push too hard to establish their value to the team. Rather than wait for them to figure it out, provide feedback early and often.

Another powerful way to build trust is to accelerate getting to know each other. You can accomplish this by having regularly scheduled team formation exercises. I have many of these in my bag of tricks and would be happy to share them with you if you reach out to me. Some are simple social activities: playing online games together, going out to lunch (assuming you’re colocated), or going out for drinks). Others are more structured to create opportunities to share background information about ourselves. I like these most, but both types matter.

I have also implemented one other idea. When new employees join the team, they find an email waiting for them in their inbox. The email contains a document describing as much information as possible about the team and its place in the organization. There are biographies for each team member and other vital people working closely with the team in the organization. It also defines our routines and practices.

We ask new members if the document is helpful. Which parts do they find valuable? What might we add? Like all things agile, we are continually looking for improvement opportunities.

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