But what IS a good culture?

I recently took part in a survey of 100+ software engineers. The idea was to put some kind of descriptive definition of our culture together, so that we could share it with potential recruits, and build upon it to maintain and improve going forwards.

The result? We’ve found that it’s something very difficult to put into words (although I guess we could just string out a list of the usual adjectives), except by example. And there are loads of examples to draw from! One of my favourites is an engineer asking, “Please can I leave early today? I need to…” at which point his manager interrupted him with “I don’t need to know. I trust you to manage your hours and workload”, and walked away. Jaw-dropping, right? WHY is it jaw-dropping? Why isn’t every workplace like this? I don’t know, but I can guess: it’s difficult, it can be expensive, and it requires a total turnaround in thinking patterns. Much like adopting properly agile approaches needs a switch to be thrown in heads across the entire organisation. And that can be painful, if not seemingly impossible. Letting go of command & control in favour of trust and collaboration is hard if C&C is all you’ve ever known.

It’s about being in a place… where every single person takes responsibility for the comfort and happiness of the people around them.

When asked to describe our culture, one respondent wrote something of an essay. I’ve bullet-pointed, added emphasis and rearranged a little for the sake of readability, but haven’t otherwise edited the content:

  • It’s the unfailing and ongoing work right through the company to put the people first, always.
  • It’s something we see demonstrated daily, when the news of an unwell colleague results in sympathy and offers to help well before anyone wonders what the project-impact will be.
  • It’s a warm smile in the office (or over Hangouts), because we are genuinely pleased to be working with people we care about.
  • It’s the sitting-right-next-to-you problem-solving we witness or take part in daily.
  • It’s the I’ve-got-your-back attitude and actions of always-supportive line-management.
  • It’s the ongoing conversations about education, personal growth and career pathing.
  • It’s somebody you barely know stopping by your desk to congratulate you on the birth of a child.
  • It’s connecting in to the company’s specially-arranged anti-isolation channel over a long weekend to find it hosted by the executives; think about that for a second… some of the most senior people in the company gave up personal time over a holiday weekend in the interests of staff welfare.
  • It’s that guy who brought you a can of Coke Zero because he’s noticed you’ve been in meetings for two hours flat.
  • It’s the fact that switching from mostly-onsite to fully-remote overnight didn’t even slow us down.

…innovation can only thrive under these conditions.

  • It’s the anti-blame way we approach problems, coupled with broad mistake-tolerance; innovation can only thrive under these conditions. It’s the blessing to try something new, different or even (maybe especially?) status-quo-challenging. It’s the way we learn lessons from experiments whether they worked out as expected or not. It’s our never-complacent kaizen.
  • It’s the attitude and environment created by a huge group of people who collectively believe that good enough isn’t good enough. It’s the personal pride we all take in our extreme levels of quality and code hygiene. It’s the firm belief that what we do (and therefore the way we do it) MATTERS.
  • It’s about being in a place (even a virtual one) where every single person takes responsibility for the comfort and happiness of the people around them.

So how did we end up with a culture this rich and valuable?

It’s a commitment to never compromise on putting the people first.


Clearly some of it is top-down, company driven: creating a safe and trusting environment where blame is just never considered, where experimentation is encouraged, where teams self-determine the best way of doing things, where working location and hours flex around the people. It’s a commitment to never compromise on putting the people first.

And some of it is people-driven: that shared responsibility where everyone looks out for everyone else – and all the behaviours that come with that pattern. This includes wide inclusion in the candidate screening process (more than one each of gender, rank, age-range, culture, ethnicity, background), ensuring that we hire people who feel the same way.

The interesting side of this is that to some extent, it’s self-driven. Because we have a culture where we put the people first, we think, plan and act in a way that promotes the culture at every turn.

Perhaps one of the surprising aspects of this is that it looks easy. It certainly made that organisation an easier place to work – when you look forward to going to work every day, that’s a no-brainer. But I don’t believe for one second that this came about by accident. It’s the product of many years of non-stop thought and damn hard work to create the environment where this kind of culture can grow. Perhaps making it look easy is part of the success-formula? I heard something a while ago that’s resonated with me ever since (although I have no idea of the original source): “If I’m doing my job properly, you’ll wonder whether I’m doing anything at all”. But trust me: it’s a lot of hard work to make something like this look effortless.

You can’t buy this. You have to earn it.


I spoke earlier about the cost and difficulty of achieving and maintaining such a culture, which probably explains why many organisations (especially those with an only-this-quarter’s-numbers-matter mentality) just can’t get there. But what are the benefits? In case it’s not blindingly obvious: you get happy, engaged people. Those people will genuinely enjoy working with you. Having a people-first safety-net is immensely reassuring, and leads to a sense of security and stability, which will build loyalty. And that’s not blind I’m-a-company-man loyalty. It’s I-like-it-here loyalty, creating a mind-set where people want to be the best they can be, and bring the best possible versions of themselves to work every day. You can’t buy this. You have to earn it.

And no, this is not a recruiting advert. Nobody’s paying me for this, or even asking me to write it. It’s just me scribbling down some personal thoughts and opinions, hoping to spark a conversation or two, so that we can explore this a little deeper and look at it through different lenses. Culture is one of the areas I have a deeply-vested interest in, all the more so because it’s such a slippery eel to get a grasp on. I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me!

Please note that the postings on this site don’t necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer, professional organisations, political party, family, favourite ice-cream, car manufacturer or anybody at all, really. I don’t know where they come from. It scares me sometimes.

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I'm a grumpy old fart. I know a lot about leadership, culture & agility, something about wellbeing, and a little about woodworking.

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