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Work Culture

Talking IT team culture with Kris Kempinski

Grace Macej

The last time that Kris and Lukasz had the chance to sit down and talk IT together was over three years ago. Now, they’ve rejoined forces to break down what can be considered an umbrella term for all technical issues: company culture. More specifically, culture in IT companies. In the recent session, Kris took the opportunity to ask Lukasz about his many experiences dealing with IT company cultures and how he has successfully cultivated them in various work environments.

To kick things off, Kris started out with a great introduction of both Lukasz’ career and hobbies. He commented, “My guest today is a programmer, CTO and co-founder of several startups, leader of software and product teams associated with technologies such as Ruby on Rails and Elixir. He performs in front of a wider audience and teaches the new generation of developers, and he’s a fan of development, new technologies, and bicycle escapades.”

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Want more content? We’ve got some additional podcast recommendations for you. These are some of Lukasz’ favourites at the moment:

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What’s the meaning of company culture?

Kris opened this topic with the acknowledgement that company culture is a term that’s defined a little differently by each and every one of us. He went on to say, “It's been said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and there is indeed something to that. What values we live by in the company and how we behave on a daily basis de facto defines the company.” Let’s dive into some Q&A.

Kris: From your practical approach and experience, what does company mean culture to you? How do you implement it at LLI?

Lukasz: In my opinion, company culture can be defined as a set of formal and informal behaviours within the company between colleagues as well as towards the customer or people we work with.

Kris: It’s also said that culture is somehow defined by values. It has even become fashionable to do workshops precisely so that the company is able to clearly define these values for itself. How did you define the values that you implement in the company for yourself? How did you arrive at them and how do you operate now, defined by your past experiences?

Lukasz: First of all, over the years and working together in different cultures, I've seen that there are certain preferences that define behaviours that ultimately lead to fantastic cooperation and atmosphere at work. This is a huge advantage of being in an environment in which you enjoy working, all other things aside (whether it's technology, or how demanding the project is, and so on). The point is that the atmosphere we have built allows people to achieve their maximum efficiency and fun from what they do.

Very often, I’ve seen situations where we were dealing with really experienced people but the cooperation went very differently precisely because each of these people was a strong-minded individual who didn’t follow the same rules or forms of communication. So it took me a couple of years to define and establish these values for myself before I was able to put it into words. Then, I set these up in a sort of visual pyramid, which we now also use on our online channels as well as during the recruitment process.

How were LLI’s company values created?

To implement LLI’s current set of values, a total of six elements were selected, which Lukasz and Mariusz then broke down into specific behaviours and documented the ways in which they should and shouldn’t be implemented.

At the base of our value pyramid, we have three main values: Ownership, commitment, and transparency. Let’s break each of these down.

  • Ownership: Taking responsibility for our tasks and work. In practice, this boils down to things like informing the relevant team members when someone goes on vacation or jumping in and helping others if the situation calls for it.
  • Commitment: In other words, “If I say I will do something, I will do it.” As simple as it sounds, it is unbelievable how often we tend to forget that everyone has a slightly different perception and everyone understands a deadline differently.
  • Transparency: Openness in communication as well as in a broader sense. This is one of my favourite topics, because the pandemic has emphasised just how easy it is to have misunderstandings or over-interpret someone's behaviour just because we're communicating on online channels like Slack instead of talking something through (either in a call or in person). In these situations, transparency means asking for what’s sometimes non-intuitive behaviour – that is, inviting people to always write in groups and in public instead of in direct messages, since there's always someone else who can benefit from that knowledge.

LLI’s remaining three values – curiosity, initiative, and fellowship – were constructed upon the three aforementioned core values. The way that we understand these values is as follows:

  • Curiosity: Within all the things we do, we should always be curious, whether that means staying curious about alternative solutions, observing how another person solves problems, or asking “why” in any given situation.
  • Initiative: I very much value others’ opinions, and within the framework of whether it's going to be a Scrum team or whether it's going to be a larger organisation, I think that showing initiative and pointing the way in a particular direction is always very much advisable. We encourage this from the bottom up by defining it in our values.
  • Fellowship: Building a positive atmosphere through joint efforts. This one is interesting because I've long wondered how to appropriately define it. Fellowship is a form of bond-building that occurs naturally and based on the other five values, which we can collectively refer to as competences. In other words, if someone is competent, they fulfil these values and trust is naturally established.

How was the value pyramid built?

It’s interesting to understand how LLI has successfully built its pyramid of company values. In the episode, Kris asked Lukasz whether this process came down to practice, theory, or the opportunity to work with people who have experience in defining such values. Lukasz’ response was as follows:

“Through my participation in various types of workshops, I learned from consultants who specialise in this area just how important these types of values are. At the end of the day, a company’s culture exists whether we want it or not. All a leader can do is point the way, but then that culture is something that people have to live by and they have to feel it. This is something that took me years to work out, but after some time, defining and showing direction began to translate into efficiency.

I got to this point simply through observing activities in different teams. I noticed that there are elements that are very consistent and there are elements that are destructive. I think that creating conflict in a good way (that is, challenging different ideas so that people can talk it through) is the best form for us to grow. That's why you have to have limits that make people feel safe doing it.

These values I've chosen are related to exactly this idea. It's important that we can talk openly about all the problems. It's a bit of a topic that, starting with me, you have to show your own weaknesses. And this is something that is one of the most difficult things, to break through and do it for the first time and land.

Based on this, LLI began to redefine these values. This process took years, and to be completely honest, I don't even know if it's finished. And in terms of mistakes or lessons from the last year, I can tell you that the most interesting things were how some people don't interpret words like ‘transparency’ or ‘commitment’ in the same way.”

How are the values implemented?

Each of the values within the pyramid has a defined process for implementing it. It’s important to recognize the fact that various team members are at different points of maturing into a company culture. For example, when someone is just getting started out, they may not have yet formed enough trust to openly voice their opinion on something that they don’t like or would like to change. Working to develop this sense of trust through acknowledging the issue (even if it just means writing it down without discussing the topic in detail) is an important part of the implementation process.

Then, in quarterly or semiannual evaluations, our team includes what we refer to as a value triangle or a pyramid, where we discuss for ourselves how a person has demonstrated various behaviours (or anti-behaviors) related to this culture and how that translates into this triangle. The basis of this is transparency and ownership, so that the team very regularly does 360s in which we ask the client, co-workers, and everyone else in the orbit of the person at work for input about their behaviour and work culture.

Based on that, a documented story is created that includes a few things that a team member does well as well as three additional things that they could do better. This is how each person in this orbit expresses themselves, which clearly translates and interferes with how this is summarised in this triangle. When we facilitate this for everyone, there are reworked and non-stop evaluated checklists of behaviour.

The second way that we implement our company values is through education. We have very cool books, for example, about nonviolent communication and how written language can affect communication’s reception. After we collect feedback from the team, we suggest relevant reading materials to individual members and offer them the possibility of discussing it together with them.

Finally, we regularly hold open meetings during which colleagues can catch up with leadership members and openly talk through any topic. It’s an opportunity to ask questions and clarify any doubts or fears that they may have.

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This is the first segment of a three-part series recapping a recent episode of Porozmawiajmy o IT that LLI was featured on (also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, YouTube, and Spotify). In our next post, we’ll pick up where we left off and continue by discussing how remote work affects company culture. Stay tuned!

Remote work
Future of work
Work culture

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