by David Tanzer
7 Steps to Raise Awareness about
Team / Culture Problems
Something is not going well in your team or your company. Maybe it's not completely bad, but you have a feeling that there is some room for improvement.
You see the same problems popping up time and again, and not only in your team, but throughout the company. And you hear from friends that they are experiencing the same difficulties in their companies.
Maybe what you are experiencing follows patterns. Or, rather, anti-patterns.
An anti-pattern is a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive.
Why don't Others See the Problems?
So, you see all those little things that could be improved. But most of your co-workers just don't care. And some are even really happy with the current situation. They think that everything is fine!
Why are they not seeing what you see? Why are they so indifferent when you talk about those things?
When companies or teams start with agile, they usually use some documented, easy-to-start process, like Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, ... . And when you get the basics of that process right, which is usually not that hard, most of the things that are then still holding you back are caused by the system and the culture of your company.
Even if you are not following any agile process, many of your problems and challenges are probably systemic.
And changing the structure of your company, the culture or the system is a long, hard endeavor. Especially since there are people in youre company who are, for various reasons, attached to that very system you want to change.
Many people in your team or your company will not even bother trying to change things for the better anymore. They have tried in the past, and changing the company seemed impossible. Now they have accepted their situation.
But it is possible to change that system, that culture, that company.
And the first step towards doing that is to show others in your company that not everything is going well. To raise awareness for the things that could be improved and for anti-patterns.
Step 1: Find Allies
You need people that are on your side. You should try to find the people who also see problems already. Or, even better, the people who would listen to you when you explain the problems you see and give you constructive feedback.
Don't necessarily try to find allies in the people who complain all the time. At least some of them will not be interested in actually solving the problems they complain about. You know, the dogs that bark the loudest...
If you are new to the company, this might be difficult. But just try to have conversations with people over coffee. Maybe also with people from outside your team or department. You will quickly find out who might be on your side.
Then have a conversation about the challenges you see. Ask for feedback and new ideas. Listen more than you speak. Don't just just tell them your ideas - listen to their ideas and build upon them.
Step 2: Find Patterns and Root Causes
You see some problems or challenges, and you have found some allies. Now you must find out what is really causing those problems. Otherwise, all your solutions will just treat symptoms, not cure the disease.
Try several different techniques for finding root causes: Ask five whys, draw diagrams of effect, draw fishbone diagrams, do brainstorming, ... . Take your time to do that.
Collect some data to test your theories. The harder the data, the better. Prefer automatically collected data over gut-feelings of people you interviewed.
But do not discard the latter: The feelings, hopes and fears of people are important. Often, they are what prevents changes to the system in the first place. And sometimes it's also just impossible to collect hard data.
And document your findings. But keep in mind: Your perception of the problem and the root causes will change the more data you collect and the more you think about them. So, do not write pages and pages of documentation. Keep it lean and easy to change.
Step 3: Research your History
Find out why your team and your company are where they are now.
Knowing the history of your company, knowing why you are facing your current challenges, will not directly help you to solve them. But it will help you find all the people who could support you. And all the people who could / would want to prevent the change your are trying to bring upon them.
Are there any processes or rules that sometimes get in your way? How and why were they installed in the first place? How many re-orgs have there been, and how did people on different levels of the hierarchy react to them? How did key people get their key role?
Which people are attached to the current system? And why? Are they emotionally attached to it, maybe because they created it? Are there financial incentives for them to keep the old system (KPIs, bonuses, ...)? Do they fear to lose their job, power or influence if the system changes?
Is there an inofficial hierarchy? The org-chart usually does not tell the full truth. So, who influences others? Who are the people everyone asks first when they face a difficult situation?
Step 4: Create Improvement Ideas
You will not find all solutions to all your problems alone, or even with your allies. You will probably not even find the best solution for a single problem.
And this is OK. You should iterate towards a solution anyway. Design a small experiment that might improve your situation. Gather data. Review the experiment. Decide how to proceed - i.e. which experiment to run next.
But before trying to raise awareness for the problem in your team or the whole company, you should have at least an idea how you would try to solve each problem. Which experiments to run first. What kind of data to gather. How to know if the experiment was successful.
You don't have to have a solution when pointing out a problem. All the interesting problems don't have clear solutions anyway. You cannot plan ahead how to solve them. But, try to come up with a first, small step that you would like to take.
Step 5: Polish your Message
When you design the architecture of your software, you create a domain model around an ubiquituous language. You make sure that everyone uses the agreed-upon terms, and that people only use a single name for a single concept.
Do the same when talking about process improvement, people issues, company culture and systemic problems.
One reason I wrote the book about Agile Anti-Patterns was to have a clear vocabulary I can use when talking about problems, root causes and anti-patterns in agile companies. And I hope that those names and ideas help others to communicate clearly too.
You should do that too. Find concise, easy to remenber names for patterns, problems, root causes and possible solutions. And then use them consistently.
If you want an example, have a look at anti-patterns I describe in my book. The list is freely available on the home-page of the book. Then come up with your own list of names, or use the names from the book. Whatever works better for you.
But remember: Be concise and consitent in your messaging!
Step 6: Talk to your Team
Now you have a list of problems, root causes and ideas how to start solving them. You have allies and you have polished your messaging. It is time to talk to others!
Invite your team to a meeting - Like, a retrospective. Tell them that you see some problems or challenges in your team, and in your company. Tell them that you want to do something about it.
Then repeat steps two to five with them: Find problems, find root causes, reserch your history, create improvement ideas, polish the message. And again, listen more than you talk. Seek feedback. Build upon the ideas of others.
Maybe you still cannot convince everyone to follow you. But I am sure you will find new allies.
Step 7: Talk to Management
Start raising awareness with managers.
Start with the ones close to you. In many companies who have these kinds of problems, you are not supposed to talk about issues with anyone else than your immediate manager, who will pass the message on filtered - if at all.
Yes, this culture is a huge impediment to your effort to change things. But talk to your immediate manager first, so they do not feel left out. And maybe your manager even wants to help you - Maybe they become an ally. If, on the other hand, you find out that they filtered your message too much, go to the next level. And go to other departments, other branches in the org chart.
Repeat steps two to five with them. Listen more than you talk. Try to find new allies.
All of this will take time. And energy. But change is possible. So, as long as you have the energy, keep pushing for a better culture, a better system to work in. This will also improve your life.
And if you realize that you do not have enough time or energy to change the system you are in, stop trying. It is OK to let go. You have not failed, even if you did not reach your goal.
But if you are unhappy, think about other ways how you could improve your situation. Yes, that might mean leaving your company. But: Life is too short to work for a company where you are truly unhappy.