The Agile Culture Conference

Episode 84

October 17, 2012



The Agile Weekly Crew discuss organziational culture, the Core Protocols and culture hacking.

Derek Neighbors: Hello, and welcome to an episode of the Agile Weekly podcast. I’m Derek Neighbors.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: And I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Diverse Group Of Participants

Derek: This week we’ve got Clayton out in sunny Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the Culture Conference. Clayton, I wasn’t able to make it and I’m really jealous, so tell me about all the awesome fun you had today at the Culture Conference.

Clayton: It was a fun event today. It’s a mixed format. The first part of it was some speakers, like normal tracks, like a regular conference. After lunch when we came back we had an open space, which was nice. We were able to have a few sessions there as well. That was the general format.

The first few speakers in there…basically, a whole lot of people with different backgrounds. Some of the interesting thing is that now that the [inaudible 01:08] is getting cast a little wider beyond just the Agile, more of the Pronto stuff and talking about the cultures and organizational cultures and changing culture and all that stuff.

There is some people there who are not necessarily a part of the Agile community. They don’t have a software background or IT background. It’s pretty interesting to see their perspectives and take on some things.

Best Keynote Speaker

Derek: Which one of the keynote speakers, for lack a better term or common keynotes, which of the scheduled speakers was your favorite speaker and what was their topic?

Clayton: The favorite one I have would probably be Jim McCarthy. The performance he gave, I guess I’d say it’s more about a performance than a talk. Certainly, it wasn’t traditional talk. There is an interesting book I’ve got that describes ten different…is for doing some public speaking.

It’s called “Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln,” something to that effect. It goes over some certain techniques that you would do for addressing a crowd.

I notice right off the bat, there were a few that things that Jim did, so I thought that was not only to share some experience on his part, but he jumps to his topic which was basically, “We have this thing at the tip of our fingertips, and we’re controlling the future, and we can make something of this. It’s something that’s really special that we have. If we chose to squander it, then that would be a terrible mistake.” From a motivational or call‑to‑action perspective, it was pretty inspiring.

Also the fact that there were ‑‑ it wasn’t half I would say ‑‑ but maybe 20 percent of the people in the room looked like they had no idea what was going on or they totally disagreed. I felt like that was meaningful that some people were fully taken aback and didn’t really understand what was happening, that it was a provocative talk, I guess.

Derek: Yeah, just knowing Jim, one of the things is difficult is his call‑to‑action is so powerful and asks you to do much more than where you are or even when you are already on the edge. Then I can only imagine if you’re not already close to the edge, it seems so monumentally difficult or far‑stretching that it seems almost absurd. That’s certainly one of things I love about the way he speaks is, is he is looking a lot further than a year down the road.

Clayton: Especially since when it comes down to…one of the things he said was, you can be the person he wants to be the giant or you can have the mentality of you’re being OK with midgetry.

Derek: [laughs]

Good Is Getting What You Want

Clayton: It is really powerful thing and it sounds like you really have to go all crazy, but then when he talks about, “What’s good? Good’s getting what you want.” Then it’s like, “That seems like a simple concept.” There’s some people that seemed a little confused. It sounds like I should be really doing all these crazy things but at the core of it, it sounds pretty simple, so I’m not sure what to make of it.

The Hacker Revolution

Derek: Right. I saw on the Twitter streams that Eric Raymond was there as well. I know that a lot of what Jim and Dan have talked about, or I have talked about with them, is that they really see this as being culture hacking. ESR is seen along with RMS, Richard Stallman is one of the original hacker ethos, so to speak on the hacker side ‑‑ may be not on the culture side, but on the hacker side.

I was wondering, what were some of the things that maybe resonated or you did or didn’t agree with, with what ESR had to say today?

Clayton: The thing I thought that was interesting was, as far as he’s concerned, I certainly wasn’t involved in that community when he was. I was only tangentially involved even at all in that I enjoyed reading “2600 Magazine,” and I listen to “2600 Radio,” and I went to a couple meet‑ups. I feel like that I had in that, some understanding of that community from a hacker mentality.

There was a guy in the audience who asked a question about the anonymous group, LulzSec, saying, “What do you think about them”? He had to make the distinction that, that’s not the same group. That’s a different culture, that’s a different group of people.

That gets me thinking that while the word “culture hacking,” or the phrase, “cultural hacking,” might be meaningful to people in this community, or meaningful to people that have some history in that community, for anyone outside that doesn’t understand that history, that’s a very confusing term, because it sounds more like, “we’re going to come in and break your stuff.”

That’s maybe the conventional understanding of the word “hacker.” “You’re going to come in and disrupt my culture and break it,” which is true, but that might be a misleading phrase.

The Hacker Ethos

Derek: Absolutely. When people think of hacking, they think of hack and slash, tearing things apart, which is very much part of the hacker ethos. But, I don’t think a whole lot of people think about tearing things apart so that they can make them better or circumvent something bad to make it better. People just think of the disassembly part, the negative side.

Clayton: Right. He was quick to point out that the hacker ethos is about building things, useful things and making something, which is an important distinction, but probably lost on most people.

Derek: Absolutely. Did you attend any of the open space sessions? And, maybe tell me a little bit about like, what did you see? Did you see any themes about topics, or the topics that you did attend, what were things that stood out for you in those?

Software For Your Head

Clayton: There was a lot of talk of the Core Protocols and Software For Your Head and that had some degree to do with the fact that Jim and Michele McCarthy were actually in attendance at the conference, although they didn’t participate in those topics. But, there was a lot of talk about that. I thought that was interesting.

There were a number of people who had either never heard of the core protocols or had only heard of them at that conference or the “week before” kind of thing. There were a few people who were familiar with some of the ideas, but I was surprised that there were a lot of people who had adopted one or two protocols, specifically “check‑in,” and that was pretty much all they knew and they really hadn’t looked more into it and they were surprised at how helpful that one protocol could be.

That was a popular one. Other than that, there were a lot of people who were talking about culture as a competitive advantage or culture as some new thing and, now that we’re all doing creative work and we’re not working in factories, culture is the most important thing now.

The one thing that was missing was…although there was one session that I did attend about, “OK, if we acknowledge that culture is super important, how do we get there? How do we transform organizations”?

That might have been the part that was missing was there was a lot of acknowledgment that culture is very important, but, not a whole lot of talk about how do I get the right culture and how do I know if I’m ahead or behind the curve on culture and those kinds of things.

People Want The Formula

Derek: Yes. That’s interesting that there’s not a whole lot…There’s an awareness that culture may be important and that some of the issues are maybe deeper than what process can help. But, there’s not a whole lot of talk or conversation, even in the Agile community that really addresses, how do you identify what kind of culture you have, where do you see your deficiencies, how do you move towards building stronger culture, what are the right types of cultures for what you’re doing.

People want to follow the formula. Building culture, you just can’t do that. Steam has this handbook, and it’s a really great thing, and we need to go do that. Or we just need to use that. Or, Tony Hsieh’s got this really great book “Delivering Happiness,” and we need to just do that.

The problem is that unless you’re Tony Hsieh and in Tony Hsieh’s environment doing the business that Zappos is in, that culture might not be the best fit for you. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any continued talk or discussion that starts to elevate about the variations of culture and what’s important and how do you move the bar forward.

Clayton: Right. Everyone is very quick to name the handful of companies that they have heard of that have good cultures. Every single discussion that I heard about Morningstar, and W.L.Gore, and Zappos, and whatever other handful of companies there are that have what “good culture” is, everyone’s quick to acknowledge those and throw those out there.

But in terms of what that actually is or if that’s the right thing for now or the right thing just for that industry or how that’s going to change or how do you even get there, I think that’s probably still missing, like you mentioned.

Most Interesting Person

Derek: Who’s the most interesting person you met today?

Clayton: The most interesting person ‑‑ It was ‑‑ I believe her last name is Gray. I think it was Vickie Gray. She’s someone that I’ve seen in the Facebook Booted group for discussing the Core Protocols. I’d seen her pop up a lot doing check‑in and things like that.

I had a chance to talk to her a little bit about some more technical things about the Core Protocols but got to hear her story about how she got into actually booting people and how she first came in to understand the Core Protocols.

It was nice to be able to talk to someone who had also been using them, and obviously more than I have, and talk about the nuance of a few different things. I thought that was very interesting and especially useful for me personally at least.

Derek: Sounds like a good future guest.

Clayton: Yeah, for sure.

Key Takeaways

Derek: I’m trying to think here, how are you going to apply what you learned maybe today when you get back into the real world? What are some takeaways, maybe some “aha” moments or insights, that you had?

Clayton: One of the thoughts I had, I guess the prevailing thing, one of the things I was suspicious about before I came to the conference, and one of the things that was really reaffirmed, was the fact that there are more and more people acknowledging that culture is important, but no one seems to understand how to get there or what it would take.

Just having that insight, for me at least, taking that back to my real work and being able to say, “What can I do to start uncovering the pieces to that puzzle, what are some of the patterns or some observations that I can make in my daily coaching environment to understand what influences certain parts of the organization or certain people have on the culture, which parts of the culture are very ingrained or maybe hard to change”?

It helped further answer that question of, “If you are going to make some culture change, what’s really required”?

Derek: It’s funny. I’m at a client doing some of this work now. They understand that they’ve got some culture difficulties, and they’re working through them, but what I’m really finding is that, to me, there’s no such thing as culture in the sense of there is no magic animal of culture and you change culture.

Culture is just the aggregate of the behavior of the people in a system, and so really the only way to change culture is for the people in the system to change. Because it’s an aggregate, you have to have a majority of the people in the organization actually change, in order to see that manifest as a change in culture.

It’s difficult because you need a small number of people to act as catalysts, or instigators, or models, or disruptors, to basically hack that culture and to get it to start to understand it needs to change, but it really takes the people to change.

What I’m finding now is that there’s this awareness, that there’s a problem, and the problem’s more of a system problem, but what I find people doing is defaulting to their normal pattern of behavior.

They acknowledge the problem, they understand there’s this big problem, but then they understand that they can’t fix it themselves and so then they very quickly start to default back into a pattern of “Well, I’m just going to do what I’ve always done.” I don’t think we’ve got that hack done yet. I don’t know what that hack is to basically get it to where we can accelerate that process for people.

Changing Culture Means Changing People

Clayton: Your comment about how it’s the culture of an organization is the sum of all the people and various attributes of those people. It’s really easy to talk about how great culture is and it’s a really great competitive advantage, but when it gets down to if you want to change the culture, and that means changing the people, then you feel like all the people are going to find that they’re back at square one.

They’re trying to circumvent the hard work of having to change people, which is difficult, and it’s not that simple.

Derek: Yeah, if you start to say, “Hey, our culture’s X,” and maybe you’ve got a bunch of people on the bus or onboard at your company that are strongly opposed to X, the only way you’re going to get your culture to actually change to X is to either convince those people to get onboard with that or to get those people off‑board.

Clayton: For sure.

Derek: To me, when you start to see culture shift when you start to see people get uncomfortable that are fighting against the culture and realizing that they might not fit where they’re at. That’s usually when people default back. “Well, so and so’s a really great person. We could never consider losing him.” We’ve got to placate and default back to whatever behavior we currently have is just so that they’re not upset.

Then there’s all this frustration, “Well, we did that but we can’t move forward with culture.”

Clayton: Right, exactly. Yeah.

Derek: All right, maybe we’ll do another one of these later this week or next week and get a recap. I know you and Jade are hopping on a bus I hear, and heading to Boston, so maybe we’ll get the second half of this to hear how the bus trip in Boston went.

Clayton: Yeah, for sure. That would be a good idea.

Derek: All right. Thanks for joining us.

Clayton: Yep, thank you.

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