Culture Add Over Culture Fit

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:

 

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Profiles in Cost-of-Delay: “Intangible Fixed-Date”

TL;DR
  • The “Big Four” cost of delay profiles (a.k.a. archetypes) — Expedite, Fixed-Date, Standard Urgency, Intangible — are usually sufficient.
  • In my personal kanban, I have seen a new archetype emerge, one that has aspects of both Intangible and Fixed-Date, which I’m calling “Intangible-Fixed-Date.”
  • This profile is less for the purpose of selection and more for scheduling.
  • So far, the main application of “Intangible-Fixed-Date” for me is for buying airfare, whose cost-of-delay curve fits none of the “Big Four” curves.
  • I use a couple of features in Kanbanize to deal with this new profile slightly differently from the other profiles, namely by creating a separate swim lane and using two dates (rather than one).
  • Takeaway: “Listen” to your data, patterns and behavior of work items and be flexible enough to adapt and create new profiles when they emerge.

I routinely use cost-of-delay to assist in scheduling, selecting and sequencing work, both in professional settings and in my own personal life. The “Big Four” cost-of-delay profiles (aka archetypes) promoted in the Kanban community — Expedite, Fixed-Date, Standard Urgency, Intangible — are usually sufficient for the work that organizations, teams and I personally need to handle. However, lately in my personal kanban, I have seen a new archetype emerge, one that has aspects of both Intangible and Fixed-Date, which I’m calling “Intangible Fixed-Date.”

Basically, the new profile has arisen from the need to handle airfare purchasing, something that I do somewhat often. Since I’m not independently wealthy and I like to do right by my employer when I’m traveling on business, I care about the cost of airfare. Anyone who travels knows that there is some optimal time to buy airfare (even if he or she doesn’t know exactly when that is). I want to be able to research fares just-in-time to get the best deal. However, if I model the task as a simple fixed-date item, I either have to use the true date by which the cost-of-delay is unacceptable (that is, the day I need to be somewhere) or use a fake deadline. I typically added the task to my Fixed-Date lane with its true deadline, then would occasionally check it to see if it “felt” like I should act, but it was too easy to forget about it until past a responsible moment, even if it wasn’t the last responsible moment. Which brings us to the crux of the problem: This type of item has two last responsible moments, the financially last responsible and absolute last.
Let’s review the cost-of-delay curves of the existing profiles:

COD expedite

Expedite

COD standard

Standard Urgency

COD intangible

Intangible

COD fixed date

Fixed Date

According to the reliable Andy Carmichael and David Anderson in their Essential Kanban Condensed, Fixed-Date items “have high impact but only if you miss the deadline. The scheduling imperative here is to make sure you start before the last responsible moment and deliver before the deadline.” Also, you don’t get any economic benefit from completing the work before the deadline. In software delivery, this usually means understanding how long it can take you to complete the work (see your handy delivery-time histogram), then backing up from the deadline from there based on risk tolerance. However, booking airfare doesn’t take much time (I can do it in a few minutes) — so that’s not a concern. But the deadline only represents the absolute last responsible moment, so this curve is insufficient.

If airfare price increases were linear, I could use a standard urgency profile blended with the fixed-date. But some basic research shows that price increases have an inflection point somewhere around the 30-day mark, although the lowest prices may occur earlier:
airfare-prices-graph
CheapAir-2013-Domestic-AirFares2
Other factors matter, too, of course (seasonality, specific locations). But I don’t need to get too deep into modeling that yet — I just need a better solution. That means incorporating the Intangible curve, whose items “have an apparently low urgency,” but that indicates “a rise in urgency – possibly a steep rise – will happen in the future.”
My airfare purchases exhibit aspects of both curves, though neither is sufficient. Unlike a typical intangible item, I actually do know when that future date will be, along with a rough idea of when the “rise in urgency” will happen. And unlike a typical fixed-date item, there is some economic benefit from doing it sooner than the deadline.
COD intangible fixed-date

Intangible Fixed Date

Now that I understand the cost-of-delay curve, I need to be able to handle it in my kanban system. One approach that I’m trialling is to create a separate swim lane — “Intangible Fixed-Date” — and use a second date to signal readiness (the second date being my optimal time to commit).
Here’s how it works: Say I find out on Sep. 6 that have to be in Chicago on Nov. 6. That’s two months away. Given that airfare cost won’t typically rise until about 30 days out, I don’t want to worry about this yet, which is to say, I don’t want this card on my Requested column yet. So I set up a rule in Kanbanize (my work-visualization tool of choice) to keep it in the backlog until 35 days out (the five-day buffer allows me some flexibility), at which time it moves the card from the backlog to Requested.
It has the ultimate deadline — Nov. 6 — displayed on the card. But since it’s in its own swim lane, I have an explicit policy that I begin work on these items as soon as they appear in Requested.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 12.52.01 PM

If I want to really be disciplined, I can then set a service-delivery expectation that sets the bar for how well I handle these (e.g., 90% of Intangible Fixed-Date items will be completed within five days), and analyze my performance at my personal service-delivery review. But now I fear I’m exposing just how geeky I am (if that wasn’t clear already)!

So what’s the takeaway? Well, you might find value in this “new” cost-of-delay profile (if you need to book airfare, or to plan birthdays or anniversaries, which follow a similar curve). But abstracting out a bit, the idea is that it’s helpful to pay attention to — “listen” to — your data, patterns and behavior of work items and be flexible enough to adapt and create new profiles when they emerge. Pursuing incremental, evolutionary change is one of the underlying principles of kanban method; improve using models and experiments is one of its core practices.

Special thanks to Prateek Singh, Josh Arnold and Mike Burrows for their early feedback in the Lean Agile and Beyond Slack community.

 


Theory of Constraints in the Wild: Queuing for the Tube

Tube queuing after the Tottenham match at Wembley

Tube queuing after the Tottenham match at Wembley

When a WWT colleague invited me to the Tottenham – CSKA Moscow Champions League match Wednesday, he treated me to more than simply world-class soccer — he unwittingly gave me a chance to see Theory of Constraints in action: after the match, while we waited for a Tube ride.

Theory of Constraints tells us that every system has a single constraint — which is anything that limits a system’s performance relative to its goal — that governs its throughput. A particularly effective way of dealing with a constraint (aka bottleneck) is Eli Goldratt’s Five Focusing Steps, which I talk about this way:
  1. Identify the constraint
  2. Optimize the constraint
  3. Subordinate everything to the constraint
  4. Add supply to the constraint
  5. Goto 1
If you’ve ever been in London during rush hour, Step 1 is easy: The constraint is the supply of train cars. At busy times, London simply has more people needing to ride than it has trains to take them. Step 2 is fairly straightforward: We optimize the constraint by ensuring that the constraint is
  • always busy (Londoners are particularly adept at squeezing as many people as can fit into the car, so this is never a problem!), and
  • is only ever doing “value-adding” work, which in this case is moving passengers forward (as opposed to failure demand, which doesn’t typically happen in the Tube in the form of redoing work — going backward — but does often take the form of people getting their bags or themselves stuck in the doors).
That’s where Step 3 comes in. Only after we’ve properly satisfied the first two steps, we want to subordinate — which is simply to adjust the speed of things arriving to the constraint and departing from it to match the cycle time of the constraint. For the Tube, that means making sure that when a train stops, the platform has enough room for the passengers to spill out and leave the station. But the more vital subordinating occurs upstream — such as after the 62,034 fans emptied out of Wembley Stadium and headed for the nearest Tube station. That’s what happened the other night, as the photo shows: Tube security personnel created multiple upstream “batches” of people by holding up signs with either a red Stop or green Go (an indicator of capacity, a kanban). Only when the batch of people saw the green could they advance to the next “gated” area and finally onto the platform. This is exactly the “pull” behavior that an explicit  work-in-progress limit encourages in knowledge systems: Rather than pushing as much work forward toward the constraint, we wait to advance new work until we get the signal, which indicates we are now under our WIP limit and therefore have capacity.
The result was a very orderly movement of people through the station and into the trains, avoiding the evil of overburdening and its demon spawn of waste, unpredictability and delay (and in this case, possible physical harm). This was good enough for the problem at hand; Step 4, add supply, is likely too expensive because it means adding trains to the line for what is essentially an exceptional case (a mid-week soccer match at Europe’s second-largest stadium). In any case, the result is testable, in that we can review the three TOC measures to see if any improved:
  • Throughput (should go up)
  • Operational Expense (should go down)
  • Inventory/WIP (should go down)
Presumably, the London Tube officials have indeed tested whether the practice of subordinating has improved the situation. My guess is that the practice has increased throughput, while holding steady their operational expense and WIP (which is irrelevant in this case). It has probably also improved human safety.
Seeing flow in the physical world — especially when we’re personally involved! — is usually obvious. Knowledge work, on the other hand, is by its nature invisible, so we need special lenses to see bottlenecks in order to manage and improve flow. Thankfully, we have aids such as kanban boards and cumulative-flow diagrams that make visible the flow of work — work in progress, throughput and average approximate delivery time. It’s also helpful to be aware of physical manifestations — such as post-match queuing for the Tube — to train ourselves to look for flow, inhibitors to it and ways to manage it.