Culture Matters

Recently, I spoke with a senior manager who’d outsourced new development to a non-local group. The development team has worked together in the past, and knows each other well. However, they are used to working on mature products, where you can actually write down the requirements and have them stand still for a few months. In this case, the requirements don’t stand still for longer than a few days. In fact, the development group should be using agile methods to develop the product — but they don’t know how and the management team didn’t know enough to ask. Everyone’s frustrated — no one is making the progress they want, and no one knows how to fix it.

This unfortunate circumstance is a mismatch of culture. Here, the mismatch is obvious. Management wants an entrepeneurial team. Development wants lots of definition — something that’s not possible if you don’t know what you want to build. Neither is wrong; they’re just mismatched.

The best way to prevent problems like this is to sit back and look at your culture before hiring or outsourcing, or anything to do with acquiring people to do work for you. Can you identify people who are particularly successful in your environment? If so, define their qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills, so you can choose whether you want more people like them. For example, if I’m hiring for an entrepenurial organization, I look for adaptability, initiative, resilience, oral and written communication skills, and people who are able to live with significant ambiguity. If I’m hiring for a mature organization, I might more for people who can enter and become part of the team quickly, people who can learn the product quickly, people who know how to finish things, people who can recognize when the process isn’t working (rather than reinventing a new process every time something new happens).

Not everyone knows how to adapt to a new environment, so asking behavior-description questions such as, “When was the last time you didn’t have complete requirements? … What happened?” will help you learn how people expect to work and what they do when faced with the unexpected.

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