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September 21, 2022

Jeff Gallimore’s Culture Playlist

By Jeff Gallimore

Understanding Culture

Describe your organization’s culture.

Then describe how that culture contributes to the performance of the organization.

For many, this task is difficult, confusing, and maybe even frustrating. We know culture is important and believe we should have a clear, confident answer when asked to describe the culture of our organization and how it helps us win. And yet, many people struggle to provide a meaningful response.

Until a handful of years ago, I was one of those people who struggled, too. I was much more comfortable describing systems, architectures, and code versus this amorphous concept of culture.

Because of the work of the people who gave the talks in this playlist, I started a journey to understand more about culture, what contributes to it, its effect on organization performance and individual joy, and how to change it for the better.

Connecting Culture to High-Performance

I had to include this talk from Dr. Nicole Forsgren because it was her work on the State of DevOps Report that started me on my journey to understand more about culture and its impact on performance.

The 2015 State of DevOps Report included a reference to the Westrum Culture Typology by Dr. Ron Westrum, which was my first encounter with anything even remotely scientific and research-based related to culture. Up until that point, culture was a fuzzy and “woo woo” concept to me.

In a revelatory moment as I read that 2015 report, the research showed that the different Westrum culture types (e.g., pathological, bureaucratic, generative) were predictive of software delivery performance and organizational performance and correlated to the different performance groups (e.g., low, medium, high) in the report. The research also showed that the culture types were predictive of burnout, which made the importance and impact of culture much more… human.

Dr. Forsgren’s talk from the DevOps Enterprise Summit 2017 covers many highlights from the State of DevOps Reports up to that point and what was eventually captured in her amazing book, Accelerate. She only makes a short reference to culture in this talk, but the point is clear: culture makes a difference in software development and delivery performance and organizational performance.

If you make your culture better, you’ll likely make your performance better, too.

WATCH: The Key to High Performance: What the Data Says
Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Founder and CEO, DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA)

Types of Culture

Some organizations have a culture that leads to high performance. Other organizations have a culture that… doesn’t.

What distinguishes one culture from another? Dr. Ron Westrum gives us a powerful tool to help us diagnose culture and determine which is which.

The Westrum Culture Typology establishes three distinct cultures:

  • pathological (power-oriented)
  • bureaucratic (rule-oriented)
  • generative (performance-oriented)

Spoiler alert: “generative” is the one you want.

This typology characterizes how information flows within an organization and how the organization responds to failures, errors, and mistakes. You can read more about the Westrum Culture Typology in the source paper he authored, published in 2004.

These two talks by Dr. Ron Westrum cover not only his culture typology, but many other aspects of organizational culture, what contributes to it, and the impact it has on organizational performance.

He shares stories from Google, Boeing, and NASA. He describes the characteristics of a “technological maestro” and the powerful effect this kind of leader can have on an organization. He also describes the opposite effect with Rabinow’s Law #23: If the boss is a dope, everyone under them is a dope or soon will be.

Dr. Westrum makes the point that culture is a form of capital for an organization. Culture either amplifies and expands the “human web of knowledge” within an organization or it dampens and destroys it.

If you want to be an organization that wins, keep pushing the needle toward a generative culture so you harness the collective knowledge and creativity of your employees.

WATCH:
Information Flow Cultures (Part 1)
Information Flow Cultures (Part 2)
Dr. Ron Westrum, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University

Burnout

There are a handful of words that if I hear someone use one of them, they immediately have my attention. “Burnout” is one of those words.

Burnout is real and it takes a real human toll.

In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout as a workplace condition and the last couple of years have only compounded the conditions leading to burnout.

The business impact of burnout is significant in terms of absenteeism, turnover, and lower productivity. The human impact is even more profound. Read the Karojisatsu post from John Willis about his encounters with burnout-related suicide.

Burnout is not just “too much work for too long.”

Through her decades of research, Dr. Christina Maslach has identified multiple factors that contribute to burnout: exhaustion (what we typically think of as burnout from overwork), cynicism, and professional inefficacy. She also developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to assess the extent these factors might be contributing to feelings of burnout for an individual.

Thankfully, Dr. Maslach also developed recommended approaches to address burnout to create healthier work environments.

Most notably, she suggests improving the fit between the job and the individual in six key areas. Even more good news is organizations can take many different paths to improvement relative to these six key areas—there is no “one size fits all”.

If you suspect you or someone you know might be suffering from burnout, please do something about it. Take the MBI to learn more. Talk to someone. If you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to, contact the Crisis Text Line.

WATCH: Understanding Job Burnout
Dr. Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology, Emerita, University of California, Berkeley

Safety Culture, Lean, and Learning

One thing I so love about DevOps is that it draws on expertise, lessons, and practices from so many disparate disciplines beyond technology.

For example, we can learn much from safety-critical industries, such as air travel, surgery, and the military. We can also learn from the lean movement, exemplified by Toyota and its Toyota Production System.

This panel discussion from the 2017 DevOps Enterprise Summit in San Francisco includes experts in all of them.

What’s common with the companies and leaders who are most successful, regardless of industry, is their approach to the unplanned, the unexpected, incidents, and when things go wrong. They demonstrate cultural attributes and attitudes that promote blamelessness and psychological safety. These leaders demonstrate humility when confronted with new and novel problems and situations for which they don’t have the solution. And they share stories, not only of the successes when things went well, but also of the failures, catastrophes, and even “near misses” when things didn’t go so well.

All of this promotes learning, individually and collectively.

Dr. Spear explains that this type of culture is epitomized in the andon cord, a part of the Toyota Production System.

First, the andon card sends a signal to others that someone has encountered a situation they don’t know how to resolve. It’s a call to others to help in problem-solving. Second, the andon cord is an acknowledgement by the leader that the best known methods they are using might not work, which takes humility.

Dr. Cook (a medical doctor) shares thoughts he included in a paper he wrote, “How Complex Systems Fail”, one of my favorite resources on the subject. That paper shatters some of the preconceived notions about how failures happen and how we avoid them.

Spoiler alert: one of the points he makes is that failure isn’t caused by people; it is prevented by people.

Dr. Sidney Dekker sums the new leadership philosophy well, referencing John Allspaw, “An incident is an unplanned investment. If you don’t see it that way as a leader, you are not getting a return on the investment that was already made on your behalf.”

How does your organization treat incidents and those involved in them? How does your organization respond when it encounters new and novel situations for which there is no known solution?

The answers to those two questions say a lot about whether your organization is a learning organization and will pull ahead from those that aren’t.

WATCH: Convergence Of Safety Culture And Lean: Lessons From The Leaders
Dr. Sidney Dekker, Professor, Griffith University
Dr. Richard Cook, Research Scientist, The Ohio State University
Dr. Steven Spear, Principal, HVE LLC

Culture and Engagement

Culture plays an important role in employee engagement — for better or for worse. And with all that’s going on in our world already hurting our physical, emotional, and mental well-being, we can’t afford missteps when it comes to employee engagement.

In his talk from the 2019 DevOps Enterprise Summit in Las Vegas, Dr. Andre Martin makes the case for how important culture is, citing McKinsey research that indicates that 81% of organizations believe if they don’t have a high-performance culture, they’re doomed. And yet, only 10% of firms succeed in sustaining or building a high-performance culture over time.

He also shares stories and lessons about how being true to your culture can unlock higher levels of employee engagement, and, in contrast, how wandering from your stated culture can shut it down.

So how do you ensure culture is a driver of your company’s success and not a contributor to your company’s doom?

What’s best is when your stated culture lines up with your employees’ experiences, what Dr. Martin calls “climate”. Where there is alignment between culture and climate, employee engagement is high. In contrast, what’s worst is when the culture and climate don’t line up—your employees experience dissonance and engagement falls.

Leaders have an especially important role in creating culture, in large part by how they show up for their teams and how they tap into and act on signals they get from their teams. So…

Hey, leaders. Engage with your teams. Listen to them. Be authentic. It matters.

WATCH: The Shift: Creating a Culture of High Performance
Dr. Andre Martin, VP, People Development, Google

Inclusivity

Hopefully we’ve all had the experience of being in an environment where we felt we belonged. And if we’re being honest, we’ve all probably been in environments where we didn’t feel that way.

In this talk, Dr. J. Goosby-Smith unpacks the terminology and attributes that explain why we thrive in some environments and have challenges in others.

She uses the analogy of a garden to explain the meanings of diversity, inclusion, equality, and equity. She also shares the perspective that there are many dimensions of diversity—some that are visible and some not, some that are changeable and some not.

“Humans are complex hybrids” and we’re more effective when we consider the whole person, not just the view of the person we might get at work.

Dr. J. Goosby-Smith describes her Ubuntic Inclusion model to help leaders take action to create environments where people feel more included.

Her model is based on her research to understand what contributes to people feeling more (or less) included. I find it notable that of the eight elements in the model, she makes the point that “fairness” and “trust” are foundational and necessary for the others to be effective.

The research backs up what we already intrinsically know: when we feel included, we perform better and we’re happier. We thrive.

As leaders, it’s our job to create the best possible environment for people to thrive.

Using Dr. Goosby-Smith’s garden analogy, we need to “lead like a gardener” to create the conditions so a diverse group of people thrive together. When we create these conditions, everyone wins and we live out the meaning of Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”

WATCH: Creating Inclusive Organizations
Dr. J. Goosby-Smith, Vice President for Community Belonging and Chief Diversity Officer, Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA

- About The Authors
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Jeff Gallimore

Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Co-Founder at Excella

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