The Price of a Great Culture. – Matt Schellhas

Have some one on ones, go to some meetings, lurk on slack. Day in and day out. Why keeping a culture healthy seems so *boring*.

Photo by sandeep damre on Unsplash

As an engineer, my daily standup reports were boring. I fixed some bug. I released some API. I added some code, it’s still on track for the end of the month.

As a manager, my daily standup reports are boring and shameful:

  • A handful of 1:1s.
  • Attending some meetings.
  • Lurking on slack.

Same thing for days, weeks, months… years. One-on-ones, meetings, lurking. Sure, every once and a while I get to mix in “make an offer” or “fire someone” or “write a document”, but it’s vastly different from engineer life. As an engineer, I got stuff done. As a manager, people wonder what I really do all day.

But that’s the gig. You’re never really done leading people.

I’ve written in the past how leadership is causing people around you to make different choices. And I’ve written in the past how culture is the odds that a group makes a certain choice. This is the natural consequence. When my job is primarily leadership, then most of my day is shaping culture.

When you look at culture as the odds that your team or your company make one choice over another, its default state is somewhat random. Each person brings their scars and biases and leftovers from growing up to the mix. Human nature and shared experiences will cause some patterns to emerge, but they’re maybe not the ones that serve them well in a working environment.

Leadership reduces that randomness. Shaping a culture pushes the odds a little higher or lower for some group or people for some group of tradeoffs. Instead of people going every which way, you get a group that acts more like a flock of birds or a school of fish. There’s nobody giving them direction, yet the group moves cohesively because they make more consistent choices.

That view of randomness is key. Because any sort of system, even social systems tend toward disorder. Relationships fade. People drift apart. New people join and different relationships form in shapes unlike what was before. Left alone, entropy always goes up.

It takes work to counteract that. Just like any other system, it takes work to counteract entropy. One-on-ones, meetings, lurking on slack… constant, gentle pressure to keep the culture healthy. There’s no achievement here though. There’s no release to prod to celebrate. There’s just a happy and effective and cohesive team. Or to borrow from not Thomas Jefferson: the price of a great culture is eternal vigilance.

Even as an engineer, my work was never really done. Yeah, I might have shipped software to prod, but it still needs to be maintained. It still needs to adapt as the world around it changes. If I did a good job building the software, then it should be easy to maintain. I can move on to spend time on new and interesting problems while spending a little time maintaining what I’ve written.

Culture is harder. There’s no source control to track who changed it. There’s no unit tests to prevent people from making mistakes. But the pattern of it is no different. If I’ve done a good job shaping a culture, then it should be easy to maintain and flexible enough to deal with change. Then I can do less work to maintain it.

There will be a point though where the work needed to maintain a big group’s culture is about all I can sustainably muster. That is a terrible place, filled with frustration and stress and burnout. It’s not that much different from an engineering role where you’re spending all of your time maintaining existing software. There’s no capacity for new things. There’s no capacity for unforeseen problems. There’s no capacity for picking up the slack for a peer. There’s little learning and there’s even less growth.

So I don’t do that. You should not do that. While I do spend every day maintaining a great culture, I don’t spend my entire day maintaining a great culture.

If nobody else could maintain my code, we wouldn’t even have this conversation. I’d be to blame and eventually the code will be rewritten. Likewise, if the culture I shape is so complex and nuanced that my team can’t maintain it, I’d be to blame and eventually the culture will fall apart. Part of a great culture is keeping it focused on a few key tradeoffs, but a lot of it is fostering leadership from others. One of my engineers might not be able to push an entire team towards blameless retrospectives for example, but they don’t have to. They can suggest having one when an incident occurs or they can lead by example when the retrospectives happen. A little bit of leadership helps them grow while letting me work on the things they cannot yet.

Yes, the price of a great culture is eternal vigilance, but great culture only lasts when it is a price shared by all.

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