Ironclad Journal icon Ironclad BLOG

Building a Development Culture That Works

October 12, 2023 6 min read

“Culture is everything.”

I’m constantly hearing that… and I agree. Culture is vital to the alignment and success of any organization. And I would argue that it is even more critical on development teams, where people have to work in tight collaboration while facing shared deadlines and challenges.

So if we all agree that culture matters profoundly, why do we have so much difficulty engaging with it? Why is it that our thinking and language is seemingly so limited on such an important topic? For such a complex and important thing, I’m struck by how limited our vocabulary and thinking is around culture.

Any manager will tell you that their culture is important. Ask them what their culture really does, however, and they may struggle to respond. Ask what they do to support and advance that culture and they may fall silent altogether.

Culture tends to be addressed in broad, vague terms, often expressing management cliches. “We have a culture of innovation.” “Our culture is totally focused on the customer.”

Of course you want those things! But what does that actually mean? How meaningful is a “culture” if it is really just a projection of wish-list items from senior leadership?

Culture is what actually happens, not what should happen

Again and again in my career, I’ve been through these unfocused brainstorm exercises that were supposed to give us clarity on our culture. “What kind of company should we be? What are our cultural values?”

The problem: This approach is totally focused on outcomes, not process. It is the equivalent of having a product development brainstorm where you make an aggressive wish list of features and behaviors… but then never have a real discussion about how to realize them in the product.

You would never do this! But that is the exact same approach companies bring to culture. They just decide, “We should have a culture rooted in collaboration,” or something like that, and then move on.

Culture cannot be reduced to a set of values that can be emailed around the team and printed onto the back of your employee badge. It isn’t this diffuse, invisible, mysterious force floating around us. It isn’t this idealized conception of how you wish your people operated. Culture is very grounded and real. It is nothing more than the sum of the behaviors, practices, and expectations that exist in a group of people.

What actually happens? What is encouraged? What is allowed? What actually happens? THAT is your culture.

Culture requires tradeoffs

This grounded, real perspective is almost totally missing from how most companies and leaders think about culture. And when the discussion stays at the “wishful thinking” level, they miss the actual challenge. The real work lies in assessing your team and its behaviors, determining what needs to change, and enabling some kind of change and development. And it always involves understanding and accepting tradeoffs.

We all know intuitively that humans cannot be all things or achieve all goals. And yet managers are constantly asking for incompatible priorities. They might, for instance, say they want high-touch customer service but also exceptional productivity, or adherence to common standards but also a high degree of individual initiative. Some values simply exist in conflict.

I used to work at a company that had a few big product releases a year, delivered on a rigid schedule. Management insisted that every feature released to customers be 100% ready, tested, and reliable before release. This made perfect sense – who wants to release rough features to customers? – but also meant we had to test everything for weeks in order to ensure it was all ready for release. And that put us in conflict with management’s other big “priority,” which was to push the boundaries and encourage bigger, riskier innovation.

You could not simultaneously have a blue-sky innovation culture and one built on rigid planning and meticulous quality control. We simply did not have the time or freedom to achieve both things!

Start by getting real about what matters most

Start by considering your team in depth. What is the work that you need to do? What values and behaviors actually matter the most for the work being done?

Remember: This exercise is only useful if you make it as specific and actionable as possible. So decide what values really matter to the team given the role it plays for the company’s success, then push on each one to understand what success looks like. Which specific behaviors and mindset do you want to create? How would you judge and evaluate that?

Say that you have a group of people who must work together frequently, so the ability to work well together and share information effectively is very important. And they face intense time pressure so they also need to have urgency and focus. So you will want to shape a culture that prioritizes collaboration and diligent adherence to deadlines.

Understand your role

Once you have a good sense for how you want your team to evolve, you have to turn to the hard part: Changing attitudes and behavior. Sometimes this might be relatively easy, for example if you are inheriting an existing team that is already performing well in the areas that you have prioritized. In other cases, the challenge might seem daunting, for example if you are addressing a new or inexperienced team, or one with entrenched attitudes that make it more closed off to change. Whatever your situation, understand that as the leader, you have more influence than power.

Go to the management section of any bookstore and you will find dozens of books on shaping culture. Most of them put too much onus on the manager and leader and their ability to shape the culture from the top down. Overusing direct authority to shape culture is a sure recipe for leaving people behind. Nothing turns off a team faster than someone trying to impose a set of beliefs and behaviors from on high. You would likely fail and damage your relationships with the team in the process.

Two levers: Reinforcement and disruption

A far better approach is to work within the context of the team. Instead of pushing from the outside, get the team to understand the vision and why it matters. Here you are playing an activating, not a controlling, role, serving as the catalyst around which others can change. Talk to the team about how they want to operate and function as a team, and ask them for their input on how to achieve it. The more they are invested in the change the more likely you are to achieve success.

Remember, you have two big levers: Reinforcement and disruption. Both matter. Create policies and practices that support the behaviors you want to see, while making undesirable behaviors less likely to occur.

Say you are trying to encourage a culture of shared learning, so when you see a question in the open (for example, a public channel in Slack), you make it a point to thank both the person who answers the question and one who asked. Reinforcing the small things, like someone asking how to debug their developer environment, is what will actually reinforce that shared learning culture.

The real game is to identify and engage with the people who actually do carry your culture. While everyone matters, some matter more… These are your “culture carriers,” the priceless people who will support and spread your culture.

Look at the people who follow the behavior and standards that you have determined matter the most. They are the ones who will model that behavior even when it isn’t easy or convenient. The ones who may be more respected or charismatic or connected. Those are your leaders. Engage with them, reward them, encourage them.

You may also have others on the team who have influence over their peers, but in a negative sense. They may resist the new standards and values, either through passivity and a discomfort with change or through active hostility. You may need to engage with them to try to shift their thinking, ideally to bring them in line with the shared vision for the team.

In any group of people, most are likely to follow the standards of the environment. If the tone is set and rules are established, they will tend to play within the defined structure. If you can win over the culture carriers, 2

Stop treating culture as a project

Getting your culture “right” is a journey with no finish line. It is a constant challenge, not a project you turn to every few months in an HR-led brainstorming session. This isn’t something you set in an offsite or over a few email exchanges. It is built and rebuilt every day through every single interaction and communication across your team.

Tuning your culture to fit your people and your business is hard and complex work, requiring insight, persuasion, and diligence. It is difficult work that never ends. But it is among the most important challenges facing any leader, and the sooner you engage with it the better off you and your team will be.

Want more content like this? Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Book your live demo

Jason Li is Ironclad’s VP of Engineering. Before joining Ironclad, he was the VP of Engineering at SalesforceIQ and Grovo. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from U.C. Berkeley and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.