Corporate Culture and Growing Harmonious Teams
You could put one brilliant developer in a room with 8-equally brilliant developers and it’s likely that no code would get written. Over the years I’ve learned that brilliant people will argue, fight, and discuss forever but in the process they get caught in the weeds and without help will struggle to find their way out and spin endlessly until the brightness burns out.
When developers get to the point of endless complaining, they’ve entered the world of frustration and are well on their way to becoming passively helpless. This is where a team might look apathetic and disengaged, but this is actually the outcome of team disharmony.
Teams need collaborators and enablers. Having a brilliant technical mind is not enough. With the right mix of leadership, enablers, doers, and thinkers, a team can achieve miracles.
But instead, companies keep building teams of people who fight each other without putting care and thought into the different ways that people interact.
Let’s Meet Some Companies
Meet Company X. This is a small American company who sell data bytes. Their core business model is about providing their clients with predictive data intelligence. In order to do this work, there need to be a number of very smart developers and data scientists on the ground.
Company X is filled with extremely bright people. They question, they talk, they do their own thing very brilliantly. But, Company X has a collaboration problem. It’s not the fault of the developers or managers or executives. It’s the fault of poor team dynamics and a lack of knowledge on how to collaborate. So, every simple decision needs to go through a series of invisible communication hurdles before it can happen. One developer commented that, “it seems like everyone is running in circles at high speed in different directions only to get to the same place.”
When building this team, no thought was put into building a harmonious teams; rather, the people constructing these teams put together a group of extremely bright people and thought that all this brain power could achieve great things quickly.
Meet Company Y. They also work within the realm of data and data intelligence and have a good mix of developers with varying skill sets.
They say they hire only the best and the brightest, but they don’t. They hire a balanced mix of enablers, doers, and thinkers; and, they hire these people based on their personality and ability to acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them.
The combination of these types of people on teams make harmony and magic happen. They recognize that its the harmony of the team that drives people and not the prowess of one or two individuals.
Meet Company Z. Another data company who hires only new developers who are content to sit at their computers and simply write software. Team members rarely sit or communicate with each other and during our initial visit to Company Z, we noted an eerie silence that seemed oddly out of place on a floor full of developers. The concept of a team was fuzzy to non-existent.
The leadership in charge of hiring had a limited budget and an aversion to hiring people who questioned new concepts or show an innovative “spark” because this type of person brings conflict to an organization. The perception is that if everyone simply sits at their desks and does what they’re asked, then peace and harmony is maintained.
This company hasn’t innovated in years. They are using antiquated software to maintain an outdated idea in an industry that is quickly dying. Unfortunately for Company Z, they are having difficulty keeping clients and after the sudden loss of millions of dollars they realized that something has to change but are unsure of what to do.
Unfortunately, at a time when leadership has to create the synergy needed to get to the next level (or next idea), their staff is unmotivated and unwilling to do anything but sit at their desk and code.
Characteristics to Consider when Growing Teams
Every team needs an enabler. These people are critical to the success of a team and company. They don’t need to fit into any particular role, but they do need to be able to inspire people to work together. I’ve seen enablers as designers, as project managers, as developers, and as quality engineers. I’ve seen a junior developer straight out of college change the dynamic of a crunchy, brilliant, established team in ways that brings them to the next level, which they previously thought undoable.
Their secret sauce is bringing people together and providing the spark needed to get things done.
These people are critical to the success of a team and company. They are like project glue; those people that bring everyone else together. They are the foundation on which the rest of the team succeeds. What’s ironic is that most of the time enablers don’t know what they’re doing. It’s the force of their personality that brings glue to the team.
Thinkers / Influencers
These are the “meta” members of a team. The ones who can see a problem and extrapolate up a level to make it academic. Thinkers aren’t necessarily doers but they can inspire doers to think outside of the box. They are different kind of glue, one that can bring your company to the next level or evolve teams to the next level of thinking.
If every team did exactly what they’ve always done without thinking about what comes next or what evolves next; you have stagnation and status quo. With status quo you start to see suppression tactics (“but this is the way we’ve always done it”). Influencers push people in directions that they didn’t know even existed.
Doers / Balancers
The thing that makes Company Y different from Company X is the balance of doers, enablers, and thinkers on their teams. Doers get “stuff” done. They take the ideas that come from the thinkers and make them a reality. Without doers we wouldn’t have software.
A lot of technologists start out as doers and then evolve and change and their situation changes. I’ve seen thinkers want to “simply do” for a while. I’ve seen people want the stability of “simply coding” after the birth of a new child. I’ve seen tremendous “ah-ha” moments that take a doer into the realm of thinkers and influencers.
At Company Y I witnessed something wonderful and enlightening. The company put together teams that contained a variety of ESL folks that had recently moved to the country (from various countries around the world). As these “doers” began to learn and grasp the nuances of the English language, little sparks and bolt of lightning would suddenly erupt and they’d evolve into thinkers or enablers. It was often sudden and like watching a butterfly erupt from a cocoon.
They were hidden enablers in the team that were held back by language. Company Y gave them a safe space to adjust; and, when they were ready, they rocketed in a new direction. The company never tried to suppress this or hold people back, they encouraged everyone to evolve and try new things.
How Culture Impacts Growing Successful Teams
Building harmonious teams is not easy. And, as noted above, it’s not as simple as mashing a group of intelligent people together and hope for the best. You need balance and a group of people that can play off each other’s strengths; this is more complex than it sounds. You need support from everyone involved, including leadership.
Company X had hidden enablers on the team but these enablers had been pushed to the side by other team members who believed they were more “intelligent” and more “experienced” than the rest of the team; as such, they also believe they should lead every decision and activity. The result was enablers who felt overlooked and individual team members who felt overworked.
A working session helped the people at Company X discover each other’s strengths and subsequently construct teams that played on these strengths; ongoing feedback helped people learn how to connect and work with each other.
In the grand scheme of things, this was a relatively simple problem to solve because they’d hired the right people; they just needed to learn how to work with each other. Also, Company X had a culture that empowered individuals… so the problem was resolved fairly quickly. Within weeks their software output had tripled.
Conversely, the problem created by Company Z was more complex and fraught with challenges. It also highlights an important point that companies and leadership fail to grasp: that the hiring and peopling function in a company controls the fate of that company.
Company Z made a conscious effort to hire people who did not rock the boat; both leadership and HR were averse to controversy and felt that harmony could only be achieved by bringing in people who did not ask questions or challenge existing practices. This perspective was paired with a limited budget which meant that the company could only afford to hire unskilled or inexperienced people who hadn’t yet found their voice or footing in the industry.
As such, there were no teams at Company Z… just a series of individuals who worked separately on chunks of code. HR hired only quiet doers and selected against enablers or thinkers.
Unfortunately, as the years progressed these people wouldn’t develop the necessary skills or EQ needed to grow and evolve; and, some were eventually promoted into leadership positions based on tenure, which created a new set of leadership competency issues.
One bragging point was that staff turnover was low. Turnover was limited to new hires who quit within the first month of employment; no one was ever fired. What Company X didn’t realize is that experienced worker turnaround was low because long term employees didn’t have the skills needed to work in a constantly evolving and dynamic tech industry (in a tech hub city); this created an undercurrent of resentment and passive helplessness. And, because they couldn’t go elsewhere, people fought to protect their jobs and to maintain the status quo.
This problem is far more complex and difficult to fix because the culture had grown in a way that didn’t allow for harmonious teams. Change is especially difficult in a culture of non-change where people perceive anything new as an external threat and react poorly out of desperation.
Positive corporate culture and harmonious teams don’t just happen. Companies need to be mindful and strategic about the kind of culture they want to create and how they want people to work together.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask this question all the time of people in the midst of a corporate change.
Do you want a workplace that has good work/life balance? Do you want a culture of transformation where people continually evolve and reshape their roles? Do you want a culture of innovation where people are given space to explore their ideas and find the next moonshot? Or do you want a culture of money; where making or saving a dollar is more important than all other aspects of the organization?
Companies need to be deliberate and strategic in determining the type of culture they want to create or evolve. It takes years to generate and foster a culture of collaboration and trust; and, it’s much easier to create this from the get go… rather than trying to change a corporate culture when there is a problem.