You’ve probably heard of the culture-fit interview. Maybe participated in one. Organizations and teams rightly want to know not only does this person have the skills and aptitude for the job, but also “will this person work in our particular environment?” Prospective employees also want to know that. But by emphasizing culture fit — the assimilable qualities of the person — we may lose sight of an important benefit of bringing new people into our organizations: the person’s additive qualities — new ways of thinking and working, external experiences — that bring energy, creativity and improvement that we can’t simply bootstrap ourselves into from within.
Why Culture Fit Can Be Pernicious
First, don’t hear what I’m not saying — that seeking culture fit itself is unhealthy. Culture fit is absolutely an area of concern, and organizations and candidates should of course consider it in the mix of hiring and development attributes. However, we need a counterbalance, a corrective to it. That’s because culture fit is all too often a one-way concern: Will the person fit in with us? Lest we miss out on what our new hires have to offer, we need that to be bidirectional and mutual: What can we co-create that we couldn’t before?
The lure of culture fit can be particularly pernicious for organizations that pride themselves on their culture. And it makes sense: You don’t want to hire a person who is at odds with the group’s core values and principles. But the tribal nature of culture means a rejection to some degree of outsiders. No matter how much lip service we give to diversity and inclusion, we’re often satisfied with a superficial accomplishment: We’ve hired people who help us create a rainbow in corporate photos, but unfortunately that diversity is only demographic deep. The truly helpful impact is measured only insofar as we allow their ideas to penetrate the often impermeable boundaries of our culture after we’ve hired them.
For example, I once worked with a leadership team who had been in the organization for many years and typically managed their work through spreadsheets, which meant that the group tended to meander in their discussions and would jump from one priority to the next. When I joined their ranks and offered the idea of making the work more visible on a card wall, the group had a choice:
- Reject the idea out of hand
- Nod and passively acknowledge the idea but ultimately ignore it
- Consider then either try or reject the idea
Only the third option demonstrates that a) the group was intellectually curious enough to discover new ways of working and b) viewed their new colleague as having something to contribute. Unfortunately, this group’s choice was to ignore it. Only long afterward did I realize that it wasn’t intentional or out of malice but merely because the group had become so ossified that they couldn’t even countenance what it might mean to work differently. Partly because they had been successful on their own, they had no mental model for improvement that originated somewhere else. It’s the opposite of the “prophet without honor in his hometown” problem; it’s more like “Can anything good come from outside of here?”
And that’s the danger of culture fit: Without intentional and disciplined practices that keep us open to the new members of our groups, we will atrophy in our existing ways of thinking and working.
Culture Fit without Culture Add
Many new hires struggle to find and stay in the flow channel, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept for “being in the zone,” or full engagement in work. I believe that much of the reason new hires find themselves languishing outside of the flow channel is attributable to a lack of mutual integration and intentional concern for knowing (a person feeling unknown) and putting to good use the competencies of the people we’ve invited to come work alongside us (feeling unwanted).
By paying attention to culture-adding behaviors, we can design our organizational and team experiences to bring people back into the flow channel.
How to Emphasize Culture Add
So we need to balance two goals:
- Help the new person to fit into the organization and
- Help the organization to create space for the new person.
Some organizations offer “get to know you” activities during orientation, which is a helpful start. But we should go beyond learning about the person’s hobbies and family. What special qualities and skills does he or she have to bring to work to positively impact us? This is additive or supplemental thinking.
Heidi Helfand talks a lot about dynamic reteaming and how a single change — someone joining the team, someone leaving it — means that you have a new team. We need to take a moment to acknowledge that, rather than carrying on as if nothing happened. We have a new team member; what does that mean for us?
When I led the coaching practice at Asynchrony Labs, one of the questions we coaches would always ask each other about each candidate was “What can this person teach us?” That is, what new or different ideas or competencies might this potential teammate introduce to our group so that we might collectively improve ourselves? Though we wanted someone who would generally share our philosophical approach, we also didn’t want to remain as we were. We explicitly acknowledged that we had a hole in our group, and though we may not know exactly what it was, we pursued filling it from outside ourselves. It’s the perfect culture-add question, because it ensures by its nature that you’re honoring and intentionally expecting the new person’s unique contributions.
Some other options for emphasizing culture add:
- Marketplace of Skills activity
- Strengths Interview (from First, Break All the Rules), which is then shared with each of the new hire’s teams for the first year
- Create opportunities for the new hire to teach his or her new team (or other group) something that he or she brings ; another option is to have each new person, as part of orientation or onboarding, actually have a spot in the agenda to share something about what he or she brings. This demonstrates the organization’s view not only that each new person is valued but that the organization has a need to learn and improve and that the new person in their midst is going to help.
- Personal Best
- The Ten Faces of Innovation activity
- Follow him or her on Twitter, etc. What’s the Twitter-follower imbalance? That is, how many of your team does the new hire follow, and how many of the team follow him?
- Give the new person point of privilege in retrospectives and other team meetings
Ultimately we need to be taking the disciplined steps each day to ensure that culture adding happens, because in our tribal ways, it’s unnatural. Build in a policy whereby someone from the organization — I call this role the onboarding concierge — helps the group to learn about the new hire to find out what the person loves, especially the stuff outside of the role you’ve hired him or her for. Even simple changes in how we talk about our approach can help, like how one company changed their approach from “culture fit” to “values fit.”
Herman Miller’s Ed Simon (as quoted in The Fifth Discipline) summarizes the challenge well:
Embracing change does not mean abandoning a core of values and precepts. We must balance our desire for continuity with our desire to be creative. We must learn how to not abandon that core, while simultaneously letting go of past ways of doing things… This requires a new paradigm, a new model of how organizations work — organizations that operate in a continual learning mode, creating change.
For further exploration:
Having facilitated the NoEstimates game for more than a year, in many places around the world with differing groups — most recently at the outstanding LeanAgileUS conference — I’ve observed some patterns for success. Though these “winning strategies” may at first appear to be useful only if you want to play the boardgame, I believe that they likely translate into real-world success in intangible-goods (e.g,. software) delivery processes.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t played the game yet but plan to, you may not want to read the following — unless, of course, you want to cheat your way to victory!)
To remind you of some context: The game is a simulation of a group of interdependent work teams, each with an identical backlog of 25 work items. The teams play in simulated days, and, depending on how long the session is, usually play between 15 and 30 days. Teams earn “money” based on how much value they deliver, according to the following table:
|Delivery Time (Days)||Value ($)|
|Urgent||-$100 per day|
Using data that I’ve collected from the teams over several sessions, I’m seeing that the teams who earn the most money per day are also the ones that are most predictable. That is, while they can’t do anything about some of the variation (e.g., the essential effort required to do the work), they either consciously or unconsciously follow common policies that reduce other kinds of variation. This appears to support Dan Vacanti’s idea that “doing predictability” is a rewarding business strategy.
Teams typically earn the most value per day and deliver most predictably by following these policies:
- Limit work in progress: We generally know that this is a helpful policy. The learning for me with the game is that the optimal work-in-progress levels are even lower than one might expect, typically half (or fewer than) the number of people on the team. Even four or five-person teams who follow a single-piece flow policy don’t trade off much, if any, throughput. For small teams, the difference between having three-to-four WIP and one-to-two WIP can yield twice as much revenue per day in the game!
- First-in, first-out: It’s easier to do this when you’ve got low WIP levels, of course. And single-piece flow is the natural extension of this policy. The game includes a few random “urgent” work items, which cost the team $100 each day they’re in progress, so they’re highly incentivized to “jump the queue” with these cards. Even so, the teams that have low WIP (a conWIP of one or two) are able to continue to honor their FIFO policy, which creates better predictability, throughput and value delivered. (Dan Vacanti has written about this.)
- Cross-functional collaboration: Probably because the game makes both the scarcity of effort available and the work highly visible, players almost naturally “focus on the work, not the worker.” Rather than optimize in their specialty areas, players on successful teams instead work outside their specialties, where they get only half credit for their effort. (This appears to support the research that Dimitar Bakardzhiev has done.)
- Flow over utilization: Winning teams generally don’t mind not fully utilizing all of their capacity, preferring to leave some effort on the table (literally, in the form of effort cubes) rather than pulling in enough cards for everyone to “stay busy.” One of the event cards attempts to entice teams to improve utilization, but nearly every team chooses not to.
Although these lessons are from simulations, I think that, to the extent that the game emulates real work, the lessons can be extended into our actual work environments. In general, these gameplay experiences — because they are rooted in the incentive to optimize value — tend to manifest the mantra “Value trumps flow, flow trumps waste reduction.” So why to teams playing the game seem to know these lessons almost intuitively? The reasons aren’t necessarily anything that can’t also be done in real life: Connect more directly to the value feedback loop (John Yorke’s recent post on verifying value of user stories helps with this) and use flow metrics (e.g., delivery time depicted on a scatter plot) to make your process more predictable. “Keeping score” — of things that matter, anyway — doesn’t need to be limited to games, after all.
[Note: Following is the second part of a series on personal productivity. The first post is Email Control.]
Funneling to One Work-Management System
- Options (not usually displayed)
- To Do: Stuff I’m wanting to work on next
- Doing: Stuff I’m working on now
- Done: Stuff I’ve recently completed
- Expedite: Stuff that needs to be done immediately
- Fixed Date (and Intangible Fixed Date): Stuff that truly has to be done by a certain date
- Standard Urgency: Stuff that needs to be done
- I don’t have to worry about anything slipping through the cracks.
- I don’t have to carry any of these things “in memory.”
- I have one place (my personal kanban) where my tasks live (and I don’t have to keep track of various disparate papers, post-its, etc.), which is perfectly fit for the purpose of managing work.
- I have decoupled the capture from the prioritization, so I don’t have to worry about when to do things.
At a recent Lean Kanban St. Louis meetup, I shared that, while the Manifesto for Agile Software Development has been amazingly enduring, it was silent on the issue of change management, which, in my experience, is the area that most commonly inhibits the ability for the Manifesto’s values and principles from taking root.
This is why I appreciate that the Kanban Method explicitly addresses change-management, and in particular, sets the tone with its first change-management principle:
Start with what you do now, understanding current processes, as actually practiced, and respecting existing roles, responsibilities and job titles.
In their book Essential Kanban Condensed, David Anderson and Andy Carmichael explain it this way:
…the current processes, along with their obvious deficiencies, contain wisdom and resilience that even those working with them may not fully appreciate.
This is the challenge that people brought into organizations as “change agents” or “agile coaches” face — I know, because I’ve been one and, to my and my client’s disservice, not heeded this advice. And in fairness, it’s difficult: The ambit — get results, immediately — is often at cross-purposes with this principle.
It reminds me of an earlier bit of wisdom from the writer G.K. Chesterton:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
This metaphor has become known as “Chesterton’s Fence.” To be sure, it takes time to understand the reason for the fence, and, to be sure, in many organizations, time has obviated the need for the fence. But lest we strip away something that provides resilience, or simply create ill will by disrespecting another’s work, we’ll do well to first understand the reason for the fences — “the more intelligent type of reformer.”
I can’t tell you how much of a difference having a policy of inbox zero — that is, at some point during my day, having no email in my inbox— has made. Before Merlin Mann’s thorough talk inspired me to set and live by a inbox-zero policy, I used to worry about those unresolved messages: Had I forgotten something? Was someone waiting for a response? Sometimes I had indeed forgotten, or someone was waiting — in which case I caused dissatisfaction around me. However, many times, no one was waiting, but still my brain, not being certain of that, couldn’t let it go, and I had to deal with unresolved threads spinning in my mind, causing unnecessary cognitive load.
Turn Off Email
What percentage of your day is email open? Why is that? Perhaps you have a good reason, but you might try removing desktop and phone notifications and checking to see if you’re more productive.
Email should scale with your role/position/level
Five sentences (or less)
- You’re attaching something: Before you drag that doc into the email body, consider putting it into a shared team space (e.g., Jive, wiki, Google Docs) and simply including the link to it. In addition to simple hygiene of facilitating versioning and collaboration, you’re also helping people to avoid using email as a document repository. Don’t force people to keep your email.
- You’re writing more than five sentences: If you can’t say it in five sentences or less, chances are that you need better fidelity communication; try a video or phone call. If you need something to serve as documentation that needs to live beyond a phone call, write the document and share the link.
- You’re writing only one sentence (or word): Simple yes/no responses can be better handled in other ways, such as instant messaging.
- You’re writing something that will require group discussion and/or decisions: We have other, better ways of group discussions, namely video calls or quick in-person meetings. If it’s a simple decision or set of preferences, create a survey and send the link. And please — whatever you do — don’t use email to try to find out “what time works” for each person in the group. It’s not 1999 anymore!
After Manchester City scored seven goals in their Oct. 14 match against Stoke City, my first reaction was: Wow, they’re playing some beautiful, unselfish soccer. Being also a baseball fan, my second reaction was: That’s a load of goals — how many runs would that equate to in baseball?
To find out, I used the same technique that we can use for understanding the performance and predictability of our knowledge-work systems, such as software delivery.
From this we can then start to understand the likelihood of a seven-goal outburst by a single team. For instance, with 246 occurrences in a total of 760 total outcomes, the goal total of one is the most likely, at 32.4% Seven goals happened only once last year, making it 0.1% likely.
(That 23-run game was when the Washington Nationals beat the Mets by a landslide on Apr. 30.)
To compare these outliers, we could use something like an average with standard deviations away from that. But the data from both the EPL and MLB are not normally distributed, which renders that approach inappropriate. Instead, we’ll use percentiles. Why? As Dan Vacanti writes in When Will It Be Done?:
Percentiles are not skewed by outliers. One of the great disadvantages of a mean and standard deviation approach (other than the false assumption of normally distributed data) is that both of those statistics are heavily influenced by outliers.
- In 60% of MLB and EPL games, a team scores six or fewer runs and one or fewer goals, respectively.
- Seven or eight runs (or fewer) in baseball occurs at about the frequency as two (or fewer) goals in soccer.
So the next time someone asks you about the likelihood of your favorite sports team — whatever the sport — scoring a certain number, you’ll know what to do — just as you will in your own team when someone asks when to expect a single piece of work to be finished.
Special thanks to Dan Vacanti for the insights from his recent book, When Will It Be Done?