Managing culture change in the workplace is challenging, especially in a growing company.
As a leader, you have to investigate the existing problems, and you must solve them while establishing new practices, always keeping improvement in mind.
You also need to make sure that you include employees in this process.
Culture change requires careful preparation, lots of conversations, and the right mindset.
Pau Minoves, CTO of Typeform, has been undertaking such responsibilities for many years. He manages company growth while enabling and involving engineers. He talks about his role and its challenges, and he gives advice on creating an environment for employees to thrive.
This post covers:
Growth in itself is never an objective, but it is a consequence and an opportunity. In an expanding company, there are plenty of things to fix, so there’s always room for more people. Growth entails a certain culture change in the workplace as well.
Upscaling is an amazing journey, but it’s also a lot of work to manage.
Getting things done in a growing company is difficult; it’s hard to coordinate. Not everyone pulls in the same direction, even if they’re trying. And that creates frustration over time, which lowers engagement.
One of the most important things you can do is enable people to do a lot. Let your teams have autonomy, let them make decisions for themselves. Let them celebrate good decisions and face the consequences of bad ones.
The most defining turning point in terms of culture change in the workplace is when the teams become more opinionated about what they want to do next. And that’s when you know you have the right culture.
As a leader, your most important role is to build the right culture for your engineers, because they will build the product. What you can build for them is the culture that’s going to help them do that.
Focus on talent management. Handle changes properly. Create a better environment for everyone, and then you don’t have to worry about the product at all.
Take the time to have a chat with everyone. Ask about their stories, their goals, and the things that are holding them back. Piece the story together from the individual reports, find out each problem, and fix them, one after the other.
You also need to know where the company itself is in its journey.
Talk to insiders, get their opinion, and look around—you’ll see a lot of things that are not good enough. Don’t just stay in your lane; help every department get better. Everybody can be an agent of change, and you need that change in order to keep up with growth.
One of the biggest challenges is connecting the solutions of these problems with current goals.
If you have great people, they just want to do great stuff. You have to listen to them to learn what’s getting in their way. Then, you have to connect the solution to their problems with where you’re going.
Take care of the most important issues first. Then gradually raise the quality bar. Just because something was okay last year, it doesn’t mean it’s okay now. Get people to strive for more.
Initially, we had a culture of “you build it, you own it,” which is very common in small startups. It’s when certain people are the only ones who know how to work with a specific part of the code.
We could see that others didn't even dare make a pull request, because they didn’t feel skilled enough, or they didn’t want to touch somebody else’s domain. We had to change that.
So, we insisted on an internal open-source model, where everything had a specific owner, and everything was visible for everyone.
This was tough, because some pieces of the code were uncomfortable to own. But it was also empowering for people, because when you own something, you can also kill it. You can simplify it, and you can get rid of it. That’s what ownership means.
We also stressed self-service, meaning that people don’t have to wait and depend on others. It took a lot of work to make that culture change, but it was worth it. It really eliminated unnecessary dependencies and waiting times.
In a growing company going through culture changes, you have to keep a few things in mind when hiring and onboarding.
When hiring, be straightforward with candidates. Be clear about what you’re looking for, and also make sure they know what they’re signing up for.
Don’t hire for specific teams; hire for the company. It’s part of being straight with people. You can’t promise that someone will go to a specific team, because things are constantly in motion. This is okay, just make it clear.
Make sure that everyone knows the newcomers, and they also know the different teams, tools and surroundings they are going to work with. This makes scaling teams a lot easier.
Team autonomy is key. It keeps people moving in the right direction, and it enables them to work without unnecessary waiting times. You still need to facilitate cooperation.
In order to establish a consensus-building mechanism, Typeform created a process called standards and proposals. It’s a request for comments: anyone can create a standard, and anyone can propose ideas, from logging standards to new platform suggestions.
A well-written proposal is similar to a project plan. It considers the following:
These proposals generate a lot of conversations, and they engage people even more. Now, when they see a problem, they are motivated to propose solutions.
The system has to be very simple; you just have to have proposals in draft and proposals that are waiting for comments. When they get published, make sure everyone gets a notification, so they can read them. Then, proposals can get finalized, and finally, approved.
This process helps with excessive consensus building and decision making. Early on, you might want to emphasize that not everybody needs to buy into everything. If there are enough people who think it’s a good proposal, especially the affected teams, then it can be approved without hesitation.
At Typeform, there is a “not for now” section. It’s for proposals that may be good, but they aren’t actionable, or there’s a higher priority. And sometimes, proposals go from the “not for now” section back to draft mode.
It’s not a matter of what we will do or not do; it’s more about not doing everything at the same time.
When I joined Typeform, there was 20% time dedicated for personal projects on Fridays. It wasn’t working. People try to do things, but there is always somebody missing, and you lose context from Friday to Friday.
So we tried a different approach.
Instead of working on those projects on Fridays, we dedicated the last 10 days of the quarter to them. Suddenly, people got their Fridays back to do their normal work. On the other hand, they dedicated all their attention to their side projects in these dedicated sprints. On Mondays, we kicked off ideas and had the demo on the second Friday.
It blew our minds. Without even asking, around 60% of the projects were product oriented. Our product managers made sure these ideas ended up in production.
So, try to be hands-off, give people 2 weeks to themselves, and just observe the result. You may get a lot of ideas out of it.
Be aware of the company’s situation. Investigate the problems and possibilities. To do this, first you have to accept that you don’t know much. Start by listening a lot.
Be humble, because it’s not easy to know where you want to go. Sometimes, you’ll make mistakes, and you’ll have to own them. When you start to have a clear direction, reassure people that you are moving there.
Scale-ups change a lot. You have to do changes properly, with as little noise as possible. Make sure people understand the reasons behind them and that you have consensus. That’s how culture change in the workplace can be permanent.
Pau started working as a developer at 16. Since then, he has gained valuable experience in multiple positions at various companies, becoming an expert in solving scalability issues and establishing strong company culture. His approach has helped Typeform in the past three years to handle company growth while keeping good morale and improving employees’ communication and teamwork skills.
He’s been CTO at Typeform for over three years.
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