Building the Right Culture in a Lab Environment

Culture · Aug 28, 2013

One of most important lessons we have learned so far, is the necessity to cultivate the right culture. Ignoring culture is an easy trap. It’s easy to focus too much on dates, scope, and velocity. Not that those aren’t important. But consider the long term savings gained by taking the time to set the right tone, norms and culture from the beginning.
Our greatest challenge is the multiple cultures we have assembled. The lab is meant to be the proverbial melting pot. There are no titles or sense of hierarchy. We selected several partners (mostly small new firms) to learn from and apply their “start-up” practices to our new world. The lab’s inhabitants consist of TELUS employees joined by representatives from these 5 different companies. Adding to the environment, our “lab style” way of working is fairly new to many of us. This resulted in us spinning our wheels a bit. We lost time, debating, rather than doing. The lab is filled with great, talented people however, it was clear we needed to find our course.

Pivoting to correct our course

While I tend to believe, there aren’t too many problems that can’t be solved over a few rounds of beer, there were quite a few things we had to do, that didn’t include an astronomical bar tab. Here are a few things that helped:

1. Mapped the happy path to uncover the issues

Setting the right tone is very important when addressing team issues. It can go downhill very fast if the conversation is not framed properly. How do you address the elephant in the room when some may feel it is only a mouse? How do you ensure getting to the solution doesn’t become personal?
As a team we mapped out the happy path (our best case scenario for working together). We white boarded a skeleton plan outlining how we can do this better for the next release. We took an upcoming sprint adding the typical “swim lanes” to the board, and together mapped out what we felt was the best path to execute this specific sprint. By mapping the framework of what good looks like, the team acknowledged we can do better without focusing on what is wrong. As individuals it became a point of camaraderie. It was clear, we were experiencing the same issues, having the same doubts and we all wanted to fix it fast.

2. Rebuilt how we work – developed a hybrid lean process that works for us

While there are various courses and great books on the “lean philosophy”, we needed to create a process that works for us. From our “happy path” framework, we built out the details on how our team would work together going forward. This included detailing the general flow, composition of each work cycle, required artifacts, frequency of engaging our stakeholders and how they will be folded into the process. Now, there are no more assumptions leading to uncomfortable conversations. It is all on the table.

3. Understood we are Lean Enterprise – not Lean Start-up

Our room is lean but we are surrounded by a waterfall. While we are fully supported by TELUS, and most internal teams want to roll out what we are doing, we are a big company, depending on some serious backend systems. And while I can go on about our fantastic experience and the merits of working in a lean environment, it is important to note, waterfall shouldn’t become taboo either. There will be projects where waterfall methodology makes perfect sense, there are some – much like ours, where a hybrid approach is best and there will be some, where lean, in its purest form, is the correct path.
In the meantime, our team needs to keep up our pace. We need to keep the process we developed to fit our purpose going, and can’t be pulled too far back into the waterfall. The best way we found to do that, is to abstract the team away. We hijacked a large training room on a floor away from typical distractions and roadblocks. While our door is always open, the temptation of our stakeholders to pull the team away from our process is quelled when they see what we are doing and how fast we are doing it.

4. Understood the Process before we reengineered it

Until you live it – you don’t have a true sense of how to make it better. We were all so keen to start this project, it didn’t occur to us it would be bumpy in the beginning. As soon as we hit a pothole, we all felt an “urgency” to fix our process. Looking back, unrealistic expectations did impact room temperature; however, we made the right decision to give ourselves time to experience the process before we changed it. The time spent “soaking it in” allowed us enough insight to evaluate merits of what we are doing right as well as pinpoint issues, their causes and ways to improve.

5. You can’t just do Lean

The team must embrace “lean” as a way of life. Thinking lean + Doing lean = Being Lean. If you are always sprinting without thinking of ways to improve your technique or shorten the track you will run out of breath.

6. Clearly defined accountabilities

Because we have so many backgrounds and equally talented people from various companies – we needed to clearly define who makes the final decisions, and ensure healthy discussion remained productive and didn’t move into circular debates. Different opinions and ideas make our product better, but decisions must be made to move on. If there are no titles or sense of hierarchy that’s great, but if there is also no clearly defined accountabilities – that is unproductive.
This was a fairly simple fix. We put together a RACI clearly defining who is responsible for each discipline. We also got better at “time-boxing” discussions. When time is up – a decision is made.

7. Focused on communication

We struggled with this one a bit. One of our challenges is how do we keep collaboration flowing when our team is national. The majority of our team works together in Toronto. However, we also have team members in Vancouver and Montreal. Different locations and time zones complicate things. It is difficult for the remote members to feel as connected to the team and project as those “in the lab”.
While having remote members on a project like this is never ideal, there are a few things to make the experience better. We set up “always on phones” for remote team members to help them be part of the conversations. We have a 60 inch TV hooked up to a camera and Google hangouts so we can see each other and our work. Skype has become our East/West development team’s best friend. We are constantly trying out new ways to improve communication. It isn’t perfect but it is definitely better.

8. Assumed good intentions

It seems rudimentary. But when someone else is “changing your work” it can sometimes be difficult to not take it personally. We are all very passionate about this project and want to produce the very best product. If we see a tweak that could make it better – we do it. It is not a reflection on anyone. This is why we are working together. Together we are stronger, better. We had to throw out the concept of “my work” or “your work”. This is our project, our work.

9. Be flexible and Have Fun

There is no doubt about it, you have to “go with the flow”. The pace is fast and we pivot often. It can be frustrating at times sure, but more often wild, hectic and fun. It is not the place to dig in your heels. Take comfort in the people around you. Laugh a lot and enjoy the ride. We have learned the more flexible you are, the more fun you will have, and the more successful you will be.

The team now

We have learned so much. The atmosphere is different. It has become the fun place we expected it would be. We are definitely in a better place. We are working well together. Moving faster. And most importantly, we are creating a better product. We have even developed a motto that makes me smile each time I hear it. One team – One dream.
Authored by:
Elizabeth White
Elizabeth White
Former Product Owner