It’s becoming a given that team culture in organizations is mission critical.  At the risk of overquoting the quote, Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  There are more articles appearing that tout the benefits of a “good” team culture, but the body of knowledge for how to actually create the culture, or to know if it’s “working”…is not as plentiful.

Many still believe that fun things like bean bag chairs, crazy decorations, and team building parties are the go-to ways to create a good team culture, but it begs interesting questions like, “ummm….should we invest in chairs first, or a fully stocked refrigerator?”

While it seems incongruous, we’d like to introduce the concept of a process for creating and measuring culture.  Ack!  What?!?  Isn’t co-locating process and culture like mixing matter and anti-matter?

We don’t think so.  We think with the appropriate balance of process, planning, and experimentation, culture design can go a long way from a shotgun, flavor of the month activity to a bottom-line driven, manage-the-investment-of-culture-building, build-an-awesome-workplace framework.

In this article, Kevin and Andy discuss this from their sometimes-aligned-sometimes-not perspectives.

Why is team culture is so important?

We’re not going to beat you over the head with yet-more-citations of how great cultures build great companies.  We’re going to assume you’ve already read about Zappo’s, Pixar, and Google’s culture design.  But just in case, we’ve given you the hyperlinks, so by all means, read away.

People often presume the main desired outcome of a good culture is a happy workforce, right?  Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that we should focus on creating an environment that makes employees happy.  Good culture then equals better customer service, better products, which translates into increased revenue and profits.  Right?

Really?  Let’s think about this.  What kinds of things can we do to make employees happy?

• Bouncy chairs
Super Bowl parties.
Beer every Friday.
Every meeting is run like a game, not a meeting.
Lots of time off.

Are bean bag chairs, beer parties, and team building exercises the best way to improve team culture?
Do happy employees always translate into a better workforce? *Andy wants to point out that beer every day is the goal… 

There are tons of ways to make employees happy, but not all of them translate into increased engagement, motivation, and productivity.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not adverse to having a round of beer to celebrate the end of the week, we just know it’s not enough to sprinkle color, fun, and alcohol into the office and say the culture is now awesome.


Should increased happiness be the goal of a good culture?

Kevin: No – making happiness the goal is putting the cart before the horse.  I think you create a healthy, supportive, and productive environment, which gives the team the best chance to succeed.  Success as a team is its own intrinsic reward, and when talented people are able to succeed together, the inevitable outcome is they are happy.  But the key is focusing the culture on executing as a team, not making people happy.

Andy: I fully agree with Kevin on this one. (Shocking, I know. Don’t worry, the gloves will come off in a bit…) Increased/decreased happiness will be a measurable outcome of a good culture, but it should not be The Goal. Why? 1: The Hawthorn Effect (That which is measured will improve, at a cost) and 2) Goodhart’s Law (When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.)graydividerbaronwhite

So, what’s the process for creating and measuring team culture?

Kevin and Andy both drink massive amounts of Lean and Agile Kool-Aid every day, so pretty much everything they approach is flavored with this Kool-Aid.  Today’s topic is no exception.  The creation/measurement process is pretty straightforward.

Agile Gurus ARC framework

• Define the overall “vision” for what you’d like the culture to be

• Perform culture change hypotheses that “move” the culture in the desired direction

• Measure the effects of the experiment

• Perform a retrospective on the experimental process

• Wash, rinse, repeat.  Forever.  BTW, culture’s not something that is a set-and-forget.  Whether the organization is growing, shrinking, staying the same, the culture is a living, breathing organism and will always require care and feeding.



Umm…is it really necessary to follow a process for culture change?  It seems so…left-brain thinking.  Isn’t culture a right-brain activity?

Kevin: Yes – True, culture is more a right-brained activity.  But, businesses, for-profit entities, even the government, all have finite resources of time, money, and manpower.  Putting effort into culture change doesn’t come for free, so it needs to be justified against other opportunities for where to deploy resources.  Without a process to manage the activities, how can the leadership decide how much of an investment to make, and whether the investments are paying off?

Andy: For me the answer is yes and no. Much like designing and planting a garden, there a good basic practices. And the farmer/gardener attempts to create a system to will encourage his/her vision to sprout. But there earth is a complex emergent system. There will be weeds, pests, and unexpected weather changes. All of which influence the outcome. And who knows, that “patch of weeds” might just have amazing medicinal properties….graydividerbaronwhite

Define the culture vision

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. – Lewis Carroll.

Here’s an interesting phenomenon about team culture: every team’s got one.  Good or bad, managed or not, we can state with 100% certainty that a culture always exists.

How do customer service reps handle complaints?  Even without written procedures, there is always a default way that customers are treated.  How are co-workers treated in meetings?  Any third-party observer can quickly state what the “meeting culture” is like for a team.

Therefore, before launching into experiments to change the culture, the organization’s leadership should figure out what they want the culture to “be” so there’s a target in mind.  Dave Gray provides his suggestion for defining culture using his culture map.


Okay, so is it possible to “define” the culture of an organization?

Andy: No – take an organization of size greater than two people; there’s a macro culture and N subcultures. Each functional area, each team, and each ad-hoc work group has their own subculture.   Which one is THE culture?  I think that the leadership’s role is to create, nurture, and influence the “System” itself, and let the cultures emerge.

Kevin: Yes – I agree there are multiple cultures in play; but to help the entire organization align, the micro cultures have to strike a balance of being unique and authentic to the small group while being consistent with the large.  The key is not to define the culture directly, but to define the behaviors that indicate the presence of the desired culture.graydividerbaronwhite

Creating a measurable hypothesis, aka a refutable hypothesis.

As Ash Maury says in Scaling Lean, don’t do a “let’s run this experiment and see what happens…” of course something will happen!  We’re interested in maximizing the speed of discovery and learning, not just doing stuff.  So even if an experiment “fails,” it’s not a complete failure if we learn something that informs what to do next.

A refutable hypothesis is a great step towards making sure we always walk away from an experiment with something.  For a culture change experiment, the structure of a refutable hypothesis could resemble:

“If we do [activity], then it should change [metric] by [amount of change] in [time estimate].”

Here’s an example:

“If we train everyone on product team alpha in how to ask for help sooner, then it will increase the number of story points we can do per sprint by 20% in the next two sprints.”

This refutable hypothesis is clear without being too prescriptive.  It has a specific metric that we can measure.  It “hypothesizes” how much gain we can expect, and how soon.

By being clear, it gives us a real opportunity to pass, or fail, this hypothesis, and that’s the real point.  If we sandbag the hypothesis by removing the 20%, then we could easily “game” the outcome by adding the smallest customer story possible and call it a win, but we’d only be fooling ourselves.


Are there some parts of team culture that shouldn’t be measured at all?

Kevin: No – without a measurement, it becomes nearly impossible to know whether the experiment is a success.  While direct measures are not always practical, the experimenting team needs to dig in to ensure the experiment is designed in such a way that its effects can be measured with acceptable levels of measurement cost, bias, and uncertainty.  If it can’t be measured, it can’t be justified.

Andy: Diametric opposition here, Kev. Measure many things, yes. But measure all things? No way, no how. We should focus our limited resources on measuring a few things that we highly value. And accept the inherent biases of that approach. Maybe I measure the yield of tomatoes in the garden, the number of ladybugs, and the rainfall. (And I ignore the soil erosion that results because I clear cut my forested back yard in exchange for fresh vegetables.) If I follow Kevin’s model, I’ll never had time to enjoy my open-faced tomato sandwiches with creamy cucumber spread and fresh dill. I’ll be too busy measuring the population of free roaming deer and rabbits, my soil pH, the number of hours of sunlight, the oxygen level in the water down stream….graydividerbaronwhite

How to run a culture-changing experiment

A complete how-to-guide for running culture-change experiments is, as they say, beyond the scope of this article.  It’s a whole slew of skills that would take an entire series of blog articles and in-person training.  Okay, we’ll admit, this section will end up being mostly a shameless plug for our services, because coaching teams in how to run experiments is part of our core offering.  We call them Business Sprints, and you can read about them more here.

If you want the executive summary of a Business Sprint, here it is: A Business Sprint is a short-duration (3-6 weeks) project that is focused on changing one specific element of the culture.


Can a culture-change experiment be successful if only some of the team members “change” in line with the desired direction?

Andy: Yes. In fact I’d go further and propose that we should call an experiment a failure if everybody changed. It would be so boring too.

Kevin: Yes – Because we’re dealing with people, it is impractical to expect that everyone can “fit the mold” every time.  Therefore, if we can take the average “behavior” of the team, and move it in a meaningful amount towards our goal, that is a significant success.graydividerbaronwhite


Measuring the impacts of culture-changing experiments

Measuring culture directly is an elusive goal.  Instead, a combination of sentiment measurement and behavioral measurements are preferred.   While Andy and Kevin disagree on the details of what and when to measure, we’re in agreement on the need to measure.  Building on Andy’s previous statements about the unanticipated consequences of measurements (Hawthorn and Goodhart), we’d like to point out that there is a lot to be said for designing the measurement process well, or the data could be so corrupted that you’ll forever be on a wild goose chase.  Future blog article coming up!

Measuring sentiment is reasonably straightforward and usually the default measure for most culture activities.

• On a scale of 1-5, how likely are you to refer a friend to join our company?

• Are you satisfied in your career path with us?

• Do you like the donuts we bring in?

Measuring behaviors, though, can often yield more accurate information.  Just ask anyone who’s been on a diet: what’s the better indicator of your dieting progress?  Asking you if you are following the program, or recording how many times you crack open the freezer at 2AM for a midnight snack?

• Measure how often people speak up in meetings to see if we are creating a culture of safety

• Measure how many qualified newhire referrals we get from employees to see if we have a workplace that employees are proud of

• Measure how quickly the donuts disappear


What’s a more powerful measure for culture impact – asking people how they feel, or what they think?

Kevin: What they think.  While it’s easier to associate feelings with culture (e.g., “Do you feel that your team is productive,”) there is a lot of subjective interpretation in questions about feelings, and they can vary over the course of days and weeks (responses are a function of how they are feeling that day).  Creating experiments that influence, and then measure, behaviors, can remove a lot of the subjectivity (e.g., “Does your team release tested and validated code every day without having to put in overtime?”) while still indicating whether the team culture is moving in the desired direction or not.

Andy: Dang, Kevin. You come up with harder and harder questions the further along we get. For me the answer is the consultant’s standard “It depends” plus a dose of “Ask the team” I think we should focus our measures on the leading indicators of a healthy culture, and measure many things. And another important point about measurements we haven’t covered – look for variations, not just “ever increasing values.”graydividerbaronwhite


Don’t forget the retrospective!

Once the culture change experiment is complete, then pause and reflect.  Using the measures, see if you your hypothesis was accurate or refuted.  Either way, take the time to understand why.  Experiments should always have two desired outcomes: the first outcome is to move the organization forward towards the desired culture.  The second outcome is to learn.  Learn how to run experiments even better the next time.  So even if the hypothesis was correct, do a retrospective to understand why you think it was accurate; why the measures worked so well, what about the process went well.


Wrapping it up

That’s it folks!  The culture movement is picking up momentum, so more and more teams will be coming up with experiments to improve their team culture, and we applaud that!  Just remember, time is a finite resource, so don’t squander it – make sure your experiments strike the balance of doing and learning!

If you’ve got ideas or comments, want to agree or disagree with us, chime in!


Kevin Miyashiro on sabtwitterKevin Miyashiro on sablinkedin
Kevin Miyashiro
Principal at Agile Gurus
I drink Agile Kool-Aid and help others drink it too.
Andy Cleff
North American Lead at Happy Melly
My super powers include: the ability to remain unflappable, even in the middle of the chaos of change; having and communicating a vision of what working happy can be like.