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Shaping the Culture of a New Team

Company Culture

25 December, 2020

Aareet Mahadevan, Engineering Manager at HashiCorp, describes what it takes to build the culture of a new team and how the company culture and an individual team’s culture may differ.

Problem

The company culture is a determining factor in how the culture of a new team would develop. However, not every team in the company has the same product focus and that can be one of the reasons for a team to develop a distinctive team culture. For example, if you are working with a SRE team you should consider how on-call rotation and continual pressure from customers would affect their team culture. Whereas a tools and infrastructure team may not deal with similar direct exposure to customer pressure.
 

The different types of focus and work that you are doing -- and in this particular case, a different type of pressure -- will impact how the team operates and that will reflect on the team’s culture. While the company culture determines to a large extent what are the key principles for the team, you should think about how your specific focus and team dynamics are affecting the team and what kind of culture that will create.
 

Actions taken

While our team was very much aligned with the company culture, I thought that on the team level we operated somewhat differently from other teams. I also felt the team culture should emerge from our daily practice and shouldn’t be imposed by me or anyone else.
 

I initiated an explicit discussion with members of my team on their preferred way of working. At the last offsite we talked about these preferred working modalities -- do you prefer to work in the night/early morning, do you keep Slack on all the time or check it periodically, how often do you check your email, etc. We also talked about how people on the team prefer to receive feedback, would Slack be acceptable or would they prefer to do it over a video chat, how frequent that should be, etc. To better understand our team culture we also weighed up how we would want an approaching deadline to be communicated -- who would be a person that would go out of their way to figure out if something needs to be completed immediately or who would rather have an explicit deadline and someone telling them, “This has to be done by this date”.
 

A simple Google form with all these questions is filled by each team member in advance. At the offsite, we talked over all of these questions and also added a section related to external communication. We discussed, for example, how we should communicate to our external stakeholders in terms of our availability, how to help them get in touch with us or put an issue in our backlog, how to escalate something when they want us to work faster, etc.
 

We collected all the inputs and published the team charter and guidelines on how the team operates and what are principles we adhere to in our daily work. By publishing the charter and guidelines we not only made external stakeholders aware of it, but we created founding documents for us to reflect on how we approach our work.
 

Both documents are more focused on operational aspects than values that are adopted from the company culture. Our company is not very prescriptive on the operational level but is trying to promote key principles company-wide and would expect those principles to be upheld and respected by all teams. It seems to me that the team (operational) norms are more important for the day-to-day operation and the company culture plays a key role in shaping the team culture.
 

Lessons learned

  • You should be careful not to simply replicate company culture without any critical examination. To do so it is important to understand the goals behind the values that were set and discussed in the company handbook and understand their true meaning and how it can be applied to your specific team.
  • Engage team members in developing the team culture and try not to prescribe it top-down. It is the team that will bring life to key principles as they are embodied in everyday practice.

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