Three years ago, my business partner and I were debating whether or not to give our consulting company another go. We thought long and hard and decided to dive back in. Only this time, we'd do it better. Instead of starting with the services we'd offer, we were going to start with our core values.
Working with our friends at The Spark Mill, we participated in a strategic planning retreat to help us get clarity. We emerged with the goal of building a workplace culture "centered around empathy, autonomy, and balance."
The next step was to define our core values. There were pieces of research from people like Brené Brown, Dan Pink, and Carol Dweck that we liked, so we started saying little catchphrases over and over. It took about six months of finessing, but eventually, we nailed our core values down to five. They are the nucleus of our company: the center of all decisions, big and small, for the Corgibytes executive team and staff. Here's a look at each one in detail.
Think of Others
In many technology companies today, shame is the motivational tool of choice. However, this command-and-control management style is an artifact of the manufacturing era and does not provide a competitive advantage in today’s interconnected and information-rich environment. Companies that attempt to motivate through fear and ostracizing are often left wondering why their best employees, many of them women, leave en masse.
Brené Brown describes empathy, the act of thinking of others, as the antidote to shame. If we are to build a workplace where people feel respected and contribute their best selves, empathy has to be at the center. Thinking of others requires us to be vulnerable, to allow for uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. As Dr. Brown puts it; “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
At Corgibytes, we each keep a daily journal as a wiki page where we practice describing our day. Journals are intentionally professional, personal, and public. Having work journals that everyone can read gives our team context into the choices we’re making so we support each other as needed. We also post daily stand-up meetings where we list what’s in our way. Sometimes what's blocking us is a technical issue, but it's often something personal in nature, too.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
Is intelligence fixed? People who are praised as smart or for a particular skill tend to think so. However, science is showing that this worldview severely limits human potential. At the forefront of this research is Dr. Carol Dweck, defines a growth mindset as “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
High-achieving individuals with a fixed mindset are most prone to experiencing Imposter Syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough despite evidence to the contrary. Dr. Valarie Young shares how “imposter feelings crop out most during times of transition or when faced with a new challenge.” Just how empathy is the antidote to shame, adopting a growth mindset is the antidote to Imposter Syndrome.
While learning something new, it is also helpful to be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias where people who objectively are less skilled feel more superior and project their ability to be much higher than it is.
This concept of the duality between Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect was summarized by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell when he said: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Communication is Just as Important as Code
When a team is focused on solving complex problems with many interdependencies, transparent communication becomes imperative.
At Corgibytes, we eliminate the binary belief that people are “technical” or “non-technical.” Everyone is expected to be both. Folks who come from a computer science background participate in sales calls and help with blog posts, and everyone, no matter their role, is expected to learn how to code.
To preserve a culture of autonomy, we push for asynchronous communication that allows people the most scheduling flexibility. To achieve this, we use the following ChatOps stack: Slack, Todoist, GitHub (including issues and wikis) Google Docs, and custom built APIs.
We have also developed a framework for reducing context switching costs based on the movie “Inception.” The more ideas within ideas an individual is holding at a given time, the less prepared they are to collaborate. Synchronous collaboration works best when individuals have the opportunity to wrap up their mental models.
Routine communication occurs across teams and with clients, including daily stand-ups, daily journal entries, weekly retrospectives, weekly client check-ins.
At Corgibytes, we focus on transparent communication in a variety of ways:
- All staff keeps a public work journal
- Daily standups and weekly retrospectives
- Encouraging pair and mob programming
- Perform technical discoveries for each project
- Push small commits that use the description box, which is the best source of documentation because rationale comes up when you run
- Use wikis to document daily communication, environment setup, meeting notes, etc.
Calm the Chaos
Urgency leads to errors; frenzy to frustration. At Corgibytes, we focus on developing the steady working rhythm and calm mind that works best for solving complex problems. Here are some specific things we have implemented:
- Eliminated office hours and company holidays. The staff is encouraged to work in a way that matches their personal productivity.
- Notice how language choices can influence stress. Ex: sprint vs. iteration
- Praise staff for self-care and results rather than effort.
- Introduce a framework for stepping away from the keyboard to solve a complex problem: 80% of your brain, 80% of the time.
- Mindfulness training through yoga classes three times per week.
Craftsmanship in Context
Software developers are often trained to be binary thinkers and the result can be their beliefs about the right way to develop software are often dogmatic and polarizing. Always estimate! Never estimate! Always write tests first! Never write tests first! Scrum only! Scrum is stupid! And the list goes on.
In our view, it's important to look at every problem we're solving through the lens of context. We frame every technology choice with "What's the business problem we're solving?" to help us figure out which practices will provide the most value to our clients in any given situation. For example, sometimes clients just need quick and dirty prototypes to prove a concept and get a budget for a bigger project. Other times, we're refactoring very sensitive systems that have to be handled with care. The way you treat each of those problems will vary widely. You have to take context into account before choosing your level of craftsmanship.
As a result of this empathy-focused culture, Corgibytes recruits and retains talent (despite its location in a mid-market city), maintains a gender-balanced technical team, and regularly receives praise and increased business from customers based on the high quality of service. The vision that we had when we first started is now a reality, thanks to keeping our values clear and visible.
This post originally appeared on Corgibytes.com