Improving Company Culture through Scrum Values

company-culture

This article was originally posted at the Scrum Alliance Member's Articles.

A company’s culture is its only truly unique identifier. Your products, your strategies and even your techniques can all be duplicated. Your values and norms, these cannot be copied. Culture is not something that employees bring with them, it’s already there, it pre-exists on a company’s DNA. Even a company with just one still has a culture.

Culture cannot be built, you can only focus on creating the right conditions for it to flourish. Sami Inkinen, founder of Trulia, brilliantly summarized company culture as “what your employees do when they are not being watched”. Culture plays a big part in how people perceive and go about their work and it is a fundamental piece of a successful Agile transformation.

 A lot of company culture is down to how communication happens between its people. The No. 1 challenge in any relationship, whether it’s your wife, your team or your employees, is communication. Communication is the basic skill that we all require to be successful. Agile methodologies seek to increase communication and collaboration through frequent inspect-and-adapt cycles. However, these cycles work only when leaders encourage the positive conflicts that are needed to build a solid foundation of truth, transparency, trust, respect, and commitment on their teams [1].

 Most teams avoid truth, transparency, and trust because of cultural norms or past negative experiences from conflicts that were generated by honest communications. To combat these tendencies, leadership and team members must facilitate and handle positive conflict. This not only fosters more productive behaviours but brings up commitment. Commitment to work together happens only when people agree on common goals and then struggle to improve both personally and as a team. It is only when individuals and teams are committed that they feel accountable for delivering high value.

I believe the Scrum Values addresses the human aspect of the framework in a way that its processes, ceremonies and roles do not. It provides the guidelines for how a team can interact effectively, on a human level. Many of the interpersonal problems that working together brings up, can be identified and addressed in a direct manner when a team is aware and actively adhering to its values [2].

The Scrum Values are broad enough to allow a variety of approaches to address each of them, but also sufficiently narrow to give perspective of what one wants to achieve. It’s my view that the values are too powerful to be confined to the reams of the development trench. A company looking too create an open environment, with high performing teams work together towards a common goal, where creativity and adeptness abounds, should consider having the Scrum values as part of the foundation of its organizational culture.

In this text I will briefly discuss why each of the five Scrum values are important to a healthy company culture and a few insights on how to use them to improve your work environment.

 

1. Focus 

focus

We read a lot about motivation, stress, emotions, and leadership, but not much attention is paid to the role that focus plays in our ability to be productive. Focus involves the ability to pay attention to things that will help and avoid distractions that will hurt our work efforts. Focus is so important because it is the gateway to all thinking: perception, memory, learning, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making. Without focus, all aspects of your ability to think will suffer: you won't be as effective in your work because if you're not concentrating on the right things or are distracted [3].

Most successful people are only great at one thing, Bill Gates once said that "if you want to be a great software company, you have to be only a software company". Success requires a single minded focus, you cannot dabble in other things. Focus is the key work for success.

Effective communication also requires focus. Cooperation issues among employees are often the result of poor customer-focused communication. A breakdown in communication usually ends up impacting the customers’ experience one way or another [4].

So much multi-tasking goes into our days at the office that most conversations occur passing in the hallway, while one person is checking his phone, or talking while on hold waiting for something they will likely deem more important once it happens. This fosters disrespect and low trust in organizations [5]. How did you feel the last time you were trying to get someone’s attention and this person would constantly check his phone? Do you do this while having lunch with someone?

How do you foster Focus?

1.1. Focused listening: Develop the ability to focus on other people, and understand them better by trying to gather knowledge about them, listening to them actively, and imagining how you would feel in their situation. Facilitate this understanding in retrospectives so people can empathize.

When listening time is spent formulating a next response, you cannot be fully attentive to what the speaker is saying. It is important to consciously focus on quieting your own internal commentary, and step away from your own concerns to think about those of the speaker, their thoughts and feelings. Regardless if you are listening to the janitor or the CEO, do not be distracted by critical evaluations of the speaker. Focus on what people are saying - the message - rather than the messenger.

1.2. Avoid context switching: context switching has become a threat not only to the quality of our work but also to our capability of thinking and engaging for longer periods. Over-assigned, stressed, anxious people cannot work at their best and it is management’s responsibility to understand the different ways people react to these symptoms to take the better out of them, and only that. It is important to create an environment where a sustainable and enjoyable pace can be kept.

1.3. Focus needs direction: Focusing on the wrong things can be as detrimental as having no focus. People are great at articulating what they don’t want or what they don’t want others to do, but have challenges identifying the behaviours they prefer instead. As such, people are getting more of what they don’t want because they continue to focus on it. We often give more weight to the negative, allowing one negative comment to overshadow numerous positive ones. Focusing on the negative aspects of a conversation or a situation is a habit common to many. Where your focus goes, grows.

1.4. Clean your desk: A work space filled with clutter means a mind filled with distractions. Family photos and other personal items are great to make your office an inviting place to work but there's a fine line between that and hoarding, accumulating unnecessary stuff that do not serve a specific work function. Try simple initiatives to regularly remove the crap that has accumulated over desks and shelves over time. A simple work space is a more focused and less distracted environment.

1.5. Kill the gadgets: The pings, vibrations, and other notifications signalling that a voicemail, email, text message, or social media update has arrived are a constant source of distraction. At my work we have decreased our meetings times by almost half of the usual time after agreeing to stop bring computers and phones into the room! If you need to have your computer with you for reasons other than the meeting, it’s likely you should not be attending.

 

2. Courage

Courage

Aristotle called courage the first virtue, because it makes all of the other virtues possible. You don’t have to be a fire fighter to benefit from displaying courage. Every day at work our decisions get questioned. Our motives are second-guessed. Our choices are scrutinized. And each new day it takes courage to make new decisions, make new choices, and share new ideas.

Leadership requires making bold and often unpopular decisions. Innovation involves creating ground-breaking but tradition-defying ideas. Sales requires being repeatedly rejected before closing a deal. Take away courage, and sales, innovation and leadership lose their potency [6]. You also need courage to ask the questions nobody wants to hear, to be assertive and suggest alternative possibilities, to take initiative, to stand up for your convictions and points of view, to think big, to resolve conflicts and more importantly, to say “no” to wasteful work or just non-sense.

The opposite of courage is fear. Fear hinders progress. People in fear – for their jobs, for their bonuses, etc. – will not perform at their best. People in fear will not take risks. People in fear will hide issues and “bad” results, they will avoid reality and this behaviour tends to spread like flue.

How do you foster Courage?

2.1. Lead by example: Do what you’re asking and expecting of others. Encourage risk-taking, applaud new ideas, and create an environment where people are comfortable in sharing their opinions instead of hiding them. When a team spirit is built people feel supported and have more resources at their disposal. This gives them the courage to undertake greater challenges.

2.2. Voice your concerns: If you sense that what you’re doing isn’t getting the results you and the leaders you support need, don’t hide it; highlight it. Say what needs to be said. Real conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable, especially if conflict is involved. This also means having the courage to put your opinions on the table, even if they are unpopular. If are able to clearly express your concerns in the context of the business and why it is not bringing results and they still decide to kill the messenger you are probably in the wrong place at the wrong time.

2.3. Address the conflicts: It is much easier and safer to ignore conflicts and play ostrich. Unfortunately, unresolved conflict do not go away, they tend to escalate and can turn into a full boil at any time. Encourage push-back. Many leaders feel pressure to have all the answers. By encouraging constructive dissent and healthy debate, you reinforce the strength of the team and demonstrate that in the tension of diverse opinions lies a better answer. 

2.4. Ask for feedback: Seek feedback and listen. We all have blind spots that impact the way we interact with others. Unfiltered 360-degree feedback is not always easy to hear, but it can breathe new life into your relationships and leadership style if you listen and act. Make sure you are able to provide an environment where people feel compelled to give an honest feedback.

2.5. Communicate openly and frequently: Keep the lines of communication open, even when not all the answers are known. Courageous leaders use straight-talk and are not afraid to say “I don’t know.” They also share information instead of hiding it thus avoiding a lot of company gossiping.

2.6. Lead change: In fear-based environments, it’s all about protecting the status quo. Envision a better way, a better solution, a better product – and approach it with determination and an open mind, knowing that it will be messy and that a mid-course correction may be necessary. Remember that you need to bring people along the change process for them to truly engage.

2.7. Hold people (and yourself) accountable: Expect people to perform and deliver on their commitments, and have courage to call them out when they don’t follow through. Remember that accountability begins with you – holding yourself responsible for modelling the behaviours you expect of others.

2.8. Give credit to others: Let go of the need for praise and instead give the credit to those around you. A good leader takes more than their fair share of the blame and less than their fair share of the credit. 

2.9. Make decisions and move forward: Avoid the crutch of ‘analysis paralysis’ and make a decision. Forward movement is always better than being stuck in place. If employees don’t have the space to fail, then they don’t have the ability to take risks. And if you’re not incentivizing risk, you’re denying access to a state of flow. [7]

2.10. Take action on performance issues: Confronting people issues is hard, which is why so many leaders ignore them until they become a toxic threat to the team or company’s performance. By taking swift action to reassign or exit underperforming employees, you are helping yourself, the team and organization. Make sure to keep this as transparent as possible to the whole company. 

You will not always be successful and that’s all right. There are times when you speak up and you are flat wrong. You will have bad ideas. You will try things that don’t work. No one can be successful all the time. So when you fail, and you will fail, that’s when courage will be the most important and, likely, the most difficult to come by. That’s when you need to summon your courage and continue on.

 

3. Openness

Openness

Being an open organization is not only about being open to new ideas and expressing a degree of flexibility. It also means being tolerant, fair-minded and receptive. Expressing and fostering these qualities, especially when you are on a lead role requires an added dose of patience and humility.

All businesses and the roles of employees within them have to move and change with time. New concepts, ideas and innovation means that nothing is constant in the world of employment. Being open-minded allows individuals to accept change and work with it, turning it to their advantage, instead of wallowing in the past and holding on to outmoded ideas. Being open puts you above others who refuse to look beyond horizons they’ve set for themselves and explore possibilities.

To be a freer thinker means to have more choices available and more chances to succeed. It is not about having to take on board each and every idea thrown at you. Those who open their minds can help a company grow and prosper instead of forcing it to remain as it always has while others take the lead. Closed minds result in a lack of movement, and in thwarted conversations and disagreements, it can make individuals tough cookies to crack when it comes to presenting improvements which can help a business succeed.

How do you foster Openness? 

3.1. Make sure everyone is on the same page: Curiosity should be encouraged and as much effort as needed has to be used to have everybody to understand. People understand things in different ways and it is important to acknowledge that.

3.2. Exchange ideas on a regular basis: Invite employees to gather regularly to meet, hear briefly from leadership and discuss current projects and issues affecting the staff and your company. Provide forums for information and opinion exchange. Accept respectful criticism without anger. Send the message that you are open to what others say and that you take their work and input seriously.

3.3. Apply a democratic management style: Schedule meetings in which each staff member has a chance to contribute. Give the entire staff the opportunity to select the best employee suggestion for an issue or project.

3.4. Let others know you hear what they say to you: Listening is a skill in itself. Show you listen by asking them questions about what they share. Keep eye contact. Do not check your phone! - It’s better to have a short meeting in which employees feel they have your attention than to allow interruptions that suggest you really aren’t all that interested. Refrain from giving advice without first asking for their suggestions and input.

3.5. Recognize employees for their contributions and accomplishments: This is not about money but pure thankfulness and appreciation. Let employees know you share and celebrate their success with the whole company. Create a praising board, send a company email, whatever. Acknowledge your employees' achievements.  

3.6. Challenge people: Express receptivity to altering work assignments, tasks and schedules based on employees' individual skills and talents. Use their innate resources to provide them with a challenging and motivating work environment and to help grow your business.

3.7. Solicit customer & client feedback: Give your customers easy ways – on and off-line - to tell you their thoughts about your services. Reply to these and let customers know when you make the changes they requested.

3.8. Get employees feedback: Allow and stimulate your own employees to provide regular feedback. Periodic surveys to measure happiness and satisfaction are great initiates to feel the ‘general mood’. Show transparency and have these results public on the company website. Demonstrate concern and eagerness to constantly improve these stats.

3.9. Greet employees: It breaks my heart when people walk into a crowded lift in the morning as if there was nobody there. Greet people when you see them. It’s not about knowing everyone’s name. A positive greeting can add a lot to someone’s day and would probably make mom and dad very proud.

3.10. Know your people: make an effort to get to know people beyond their roles. Asking what they did on the weekend, how their children or parents are doing, etc. shows an interest in them as a whole and communicates that they are valued beyond their work - as human beings.

 

Good communications mean good business. Stating company values such as “open and honest communication” is useless if your staff from the CEO on down do not practice behaviours that facilitate information exchange and encourage honest input from every level.

 

4. COMMITMENT 

Commitment

Commitment is the backbone of a group or organization. It is what gives a group its strength. Commitment means staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left you. Commitment is about following things up. If I am saying something will get done, I am going to make it happen. Period. If for some reason outside of my power and capabilities I cannot do it, I will let whoever is involved to know about it as soon as possible. 

High level cooperation is achieved when people share a commitment. The more committed people there are, the more effective they are in influencing others, and the greater the momentum you can generate to get the job done. When a whole group acts with determination and commitment, great number of people will really pay attention.

People who are committed to an organization or effort they truly believe is important show up, follow through, and stick with it. They don’t take discouragement seriously, they don't give up. They set an example for those who don't have the confidence or experience to go through the hard times and hold out for the rewards of success. Commitment fosters camaraderie, trust, and caring - the stuff a group needs to keep it going for the long run [8].

It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine-to-five. It’s whether our work fulfills us [9]. To have people to commit requires among other things to give them control over their own destiny, over their own choices. Eric Wadud wrote a brilliant article about ‘Building and Sustaining Commitment’ and many of his insights and ideas are bellow.

How do you foster Commitment?

4.1. Mean It: If you say “I will ring you in 10 minutes”, make sure this is not a figure of speech. Ring in 10 minutes. If you say “I am going to sent you an email”, send it. Commitment avoid false expectations, false promises and clear communication of misinterpretation.

Consider being conservative when establishing regular meetings – don’t suggest unrealistic schedules and see yourself later on having to cancel it because you are “too busy” for further sessions [10].

4.2. Welcome people: Feeling genuinely welcome helps people to become involved and stay at the job. Set an example by personally welcoming new joiners, getting to know them and making them feel valued. That not only gives people a good feeling about the effort and encourages them to become involved, but it also provides the basis for developing a relationship that helps to cement commitment.

4.3. Open and clear mission, principles and goals: People have to know what they are committing to. They want to join a business they share similar principles and goals. Make sure that everyone is familiar with the business mission, principles, and goals. 

4.4. Be a role model: Everyone looks to the leader of a group or project to see if she is committed. If you care about the work, it will show in your attitudes and actions. People will watch to see how you act, and they will follow your lead. If they can count on you, it is more likely that you will be able to count on them. If you stay late working hard, others will be willing to do so. Commitment is contagious.

Avoid going over the top and becoming burn out and unhappy. This might lead people to shy away from following your lead. Find a healthy balance so you don’t make commitment looks like a burden.

4.5. Give people work to do: If someone shows interest in becoming involved, don't wait too long to give them something to do. People need to feel that they are making a significant contribution in order to feel committed. Try to align someone’s interest with possible work that needs to be done.

4.6. Set the right challenge: Being challenged keeps people excited about the work they are doing. Sometimes people will need positive encouragement to try things they have never considered before. Try to match employees with work in which they can achieve success and as you get to know them better, give them gradually increasing challenges as well as the necessary tools to crack them.

4.7. Support leadership: Expand your definition of leadership. Even the person who gets everyone in the room laughing when the energy goes down is performing an important leadership function. Think about each person as a potential leader and train them to lead. If people view themselves as a leader of a group, they will view the group as theirs. They will have a feeling of ownership, and will be more likely to take initiative to make sure things work well. 

Even though people have different levels of leadership skills, and different roles, everyone can contribute something of importance. Everyone has a point of view that is valuable.

4.8. Celebrate: Bonding increases commitment and celebration helps a lot in bringing people together. Even small victories and minor events are all good reasons for people to get to together, relax, cheer and enjoy each other company.

4.9. Let it go: If you commit to nothing, then you’ll find that it’s easy to be distracted by everything. Learning to say “no” is a skill that’s easier mastered than often thought of! If something is important to you, complete it. If not, kill it.

 

Commitment takes time. It will grow steadily but often slowly. Appreciate whatever level of commitment a person can make. People will vary greatly in their level of commitment and that's okay. Some people will have more time, more interest in your goals and mission, and a greater understanding of the value of commitment than others. 

You can always invite and encourage people to do more. If they do, great. If they don't, appreciate them for what they can do. Long-term commitment is not obtained through guilt-trip people into commitment. People need to feel that their contribution matters, even if it is small. If they feel that they are a disappointment, they may not stick around.

 

5. RESPECT 

Respect

Respect reaches further than manners and compliance. It goes beyond just be free of pre-conceived ideas and judgments that might block our capacity of giving others a chance and try to see from their perspective.

Respect plays a key role in recognition, engagement, and in creating a strong organisational culture. Recognition, at its core, is really just a form of respect. People who have been recognised tend to rise to that recognition, and strive in the future to be worthy of it. People who are not recognised for hard work tend to feel forgotten, unappreciated and disrespected [11].

Showing respect for co-workers and their respective roles encourages a collegial work atmosphere. It also fosters collaboration, synergy and cooperation, which are essential ingredients for creating a workforce that values productivity, performance and the quality of its products and services. The effectiveness of workplace training, depends on respect for the trainer's or mentor's expertise [12]. 

How do you foster Respect?

5.1. Treat others, as you want to be treated: There is no point in having an MBA degree but believing you are too important to acknowledge the receptionist. Treat people with courtesy, politeness, and kindness regardless of their race, religion, etc. Showing sensitivity in the way we address others can help tackle prejudice and stereotyping and build more positive workplace relationships. Implement policies and procedures consistently so people feel that they are treated fairly and equally.

5.2. Do not overlook the importance of language: Listen to what others have to say before expressing your viewpoint. Never speak over, butt in, or cut off another person. The higher you are in the chain, the lower your tone should be. Your actions should speak for yourself.  

5.3. Praise more, criticise less: Encourage praise and recognition from employee to employee as well as from their superiors. Constructive feedback is far more effective at improving performance than demeaning nit picking and belittling of employees in front of their colleagues.

Kaizen initiatives, where employees are encouraged to suggest, participate and act on small and independent ideas to improve their lives at work are a great way to get this rolling. When people feel included and valued they are more likely to be productive and loyal to the business, so implementing good ideas is a sure-fire way of showing that you respect their contribution. Let them know their idea has being used, you could even have a company voting to select the best suggestion of the month and have that employee “awarded” for such.

5.4. Mindful coaching: Promote training that encourages mutual respect and alignment of professional goals, in spite of personal differences. The distance between philosophical views on work does not affect the manner in which people perform their jobs. At work we are all together for a common goal.

5.5. Inclusion is key: Avoid marginalize, exclude or leave co-workers out of meetings, discussions, training and events. While not everyone can or want to chip in and collaborate in every activity, providing equal opportunities for employees to participate in committees, task forces, or continuous improvement teams make them feel recognised and appreciated. Solicit and try to involve every volunteer.

I have seeing places where the sales team were not invited to the marketing meetings and vice versa. Consider let the employee decide if he/she should be attending a meeting or not, and not the other way around. Apply the “Law of 2 Feet”, every person is free to use good judgement on how to spend his time and energy, whenever you feel you’re not adding value and could add value elsewhere move your feet to the place you will provide the most value.

5.6. No “awkward” or “idiot” questions: If someone feels that they need to know or ask something, as long as it’s done respectfully, they should be allowed to. We are not in school anymore. I’ve worked in places where employees of a ‘certain level’ where not ‘allowed’ to address other high up in the chain, or where people felt that if they ask a certain question they would look ‘bad’ to their managers. Do not confuse respect with fear.

5.7. Manage the fire: In heated discussions or conflicts, make sure people continue to show respect for each other. Conflicts can be important growing periods. To ensure they are useful rather than destructive, do not let people personally attack each other. Keep discussions to the issues. If people have personal conflicts, mediate the conflict or bring in an outside person to do so.

5.8. Model appreciation: Everyone likes to be appreciated.  Teach others to notice what is going well, rather than just noticing what needs to be improved. For example, you could have people show appreciation to each other as a way to close meetings.

 

Closing…

Agile in a bubble is likely to fail in the long run. Agile, regardless of its “flavours”, is a mindset thus requires backing from other areas of the business. Backing is about understanding, endorsing and contributing whenever possible, hence the need for a collective mindset around it. Like in an orchestra, every musician is trusted to play its own instrument as best as possible as long we are on the same pace and tone and this is what gives life to a great composition.

Different people will interpret the Scrum values differently, the point is to get these values out in the open and let the team’s awareness of them help them to alter their working process in a more effective way. Simply being aware of the values will shape the way your team identifies and corrects their problems.

If all of a sudden you opened the gates of a farm where the cattle has being confined for a long time it is likely they would all stay in. They are used to it. These animals are our fears, prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. They see no benefit in "being free". They see no benefit in changing. Changing mindset, whether ours our others, is like setting cattle free, it takes time. It’s always easy to go back into old habits and do things as we have always done. It’s always easy to do nothing.

Baby steps. Inspect. Adapt.

 

References

[1] Agile Principles and Values, by Jeff Sutherland - MSDN

[2] The Five Scrum values and why they matter, Mik, October 18, 2011

[3] Focus Is the Gateway to Business Success, Dr. Jim Taylor, 11/02/2013

[4] Customer-Focused Communication: Effective Communication, The Training Bank

[5] Leadership: The 7 Deadly Sins of Organizational Communication, Skip Weisman

[6] Courage is the Key to Great Leadership, Bill Treasurer

[7] Create a work environment that fosters flow, Steven Kotler

[8] Building and Sustaining Commitment, Eric Wadud

 [9] Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink

 [10] How to Encourage an Open and Honest Communications Environment, Jenny Schade

[11] The Secret to Respect in the Workplace, Darcy Jacobsen

[12] Why Is Respect Important in a Diverse Workplace?, Ruth Mayhew, Demand Media

[13] 5 Leadership Behaviours Loyal Employees Trust, Meghan M. Biro