Exploring Culture Through Questions

I joined Instaclustr 2 weeks ago as a Managing Engineer. I’m really excited to start working in a new company, but it can be a bit daunting to enter a new community of professionals without understanding the existing culture. What are the existing cultural norms? What are the problems and pain points? Is everyone happy? If not, why not? To be effective in my new role, I’d like to be able to answer at least some of these questions.

I learned a valuable technique a number of years ago, when I was working with a team of agile coaches. The incredible Lynn Runnels-Moss had a standardised questionnaire that she used when she first engaged with a new company or team. It is designed to uncover aspects of the culture, both good and bad, while avoid biasing responses. It works well when interviewing a number of different people across different roles, to allow discovering of different sub-cultures within an organisation.

 

Questionnaire

Q1: Do you mind if I record this?

Q2: What is your name?

Q3: What do you do for this company?

Q4: How long have you been at this company/on your team?

Q5: Who do you talk to every day in order to get your work done?

Q6: What form does that communication take – in person, chat, email…?

(At this point, mention the Chatham House Rule – nothing further is personally attributable)

Q7: A friend of yours is thinking of applying here for a job and asks what it’s like to work here – what story would you tell them that characterises what it is like to work here?

Q8: What is one single change we could make that you think would improve things here?

Q9: What does ‘Agile’ mean to you?

Q10: How do you feel about retrospectives?

Q11: What does ‘Quality’ mean to you?

Q12: Can you tell me a story about quality at this company?

Q13: What makes you good at your job?

Q14: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Q15: Is there anything you think that I need to know that I haven’t asked?

Q16: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?

Interviewer Guidance

  • Ensure the interviewee has sufficient time (45 minutes works best for me)
  • Introduce yourself immediately, and ensure they are comfortable (seated, with a drink if they wish)
  • Do not bring a phone, or turn it completely off during the interview.
  • If you want to take notes on a laptop, then first ask them if it’s OK with them if you do. Notes taken are to be kept completely confidential and destroyed after the report is complete.
  • Ask all questions as written – changing questions can create unnecessary bias in the responses.
  • Maintain positive body language throughout; open, relaxed, and plenty of eye contact and smiles.
  • Be alert for changes in the interviewee’s body language as well – you may need to move on quickly if a question provokes too much negativity.
  • Resist the tendency to fill in silences while people think about the question.
  • Answer their questions as briefly as possible, and avoid defining words for them.
  • Be aware of the cognitive load on yourself as an interviewer; avoid scheduling too many interviews in one day too close together. You’ll need breaks in between.
  • If someone doesn’t want to answer a question, or cannot think of one (such as with the story questions) that’s OK. Move on to the next one, and if there is time, come back to it later.
  • Allow the conversation to flow. If it seems more appropriate to ask questions out of order, let it happen.
  • Keep follow-on questions open-ended to help draw out more detail. Questioning using clean language helps avoiding injecting your own biases into the responses. The five whys technique can be useful to explore various cause and effect relationships. If someone begins to react negatively, ease up on the probing.

Analysis

After the interviews have been completed, you can analyse the results in a number of different ways. Below is a discussion of how I like to think about the responses to the various questions.


Q1: Do you mind if I record this?

Always seek permission first, and listen to the response. If this is the first interaction with the interviewee, you need to demonstrate openness and trustworthiness.


Q3: What do you do for this company?

Q4: How long have you been at this company/on your team?

Does the interviewee do what their job title suggests? A large variance here might indicate a more open culture, where people will contribute to larger goals than their role might suggest. More recent joiners tend to be more limited, as they are still learning their original role.


Q5: Who do you talk to every day in order to get your work done?

The organisation structure tells a very one dimensional story about a company. This question is designed to allow transactional analysis: what are the informal teams and communication channels within the company? They are often very different to the reporting hierarchy (and should be). I will often take the output of this question to build a .dot file, and feed that into Graphviz to visualise the teams and communications channels.


Q6: What form does that communication take – in person, chat, email…?

This is designed to expose communication patterns and preferences.


Q7: A friend of yours is thinking of applying here for a job and asks what it’s like to work here – what story would you tell them that characterises what it is like to work here?

Depending upon how open the interviewee is, you should get a sense of their general attitude towards the company. Are the positive or negative? Effusive or despondent? Do they fully recommend the company, or have reservations? Are they selective about where in the company is a good place to work (“this group is great, that group should be avoided). The act of asking people to tell stories can help them open up and share and a way than asking them a more direct question like “what’s it like to work here?”. By framing the question in a way that engages with the interests of their social circle, we are trying open up a more nuanced view. Depending upon the number of responses, I like to visualise the responses to this in a word cloud.


Q8: What is one single change we could make that you think would improve things here?

A key question. Some people have a burning issue with one thing or another, and may use this as a chance to talk about their most pressing bug-bear. Other people don’t have any salient problems at the front of their mind, but can give very thoughtful responses about things that concern them. It can surface old battle scars between rivals, and some less than positive opinions about other groups (“they need to follow the process!“). It can give an indication if people are more structured (“we need a new process!”) or laissez faire (“the process is too strict, we need to loosen it!”)


Q9: What does ‘Agile’ mean to you?

I’m a huge believer in the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto. However, in these days, the word “agile” has become weakened and confused by large scale enterprise interests, so many folks often have an understanding closer to the Manifesto for Half-Arsed Agile Software Development. I like to explore the exact understanding of the interviewee, to help ensure that I avoid confusing terms. Are agile techniques used? If so, which ones? Is there a positive or negative attitude? I like to visualise this in a word cloud.


Q10: How do you feel about retrospectives?

Effective and short feedback loops are critical for software delivery and process improvement. I like to understand existing practices and feelings towards how problems and inefficiencies are raised and resolved. How often do they happen? Do people see these as effective, or a waste of time? Is the process constrained, or open? Do people feel disengaged and hopeless, or is there a sense of optimism? I like to visualise the responses to this in a word cloud.


Q11: What does ‘Quality’ mean to you?

Another key question. The word “quality” can be highly ambiguous. Different people can use it in completely different ways. For example, it may refer to “good enough to make a sale”, “lacking defects”, “solving a problem or need”, or even “following a defined process”. Without getting a clear understanding of what people mean with this word, different groups can talk at cross purposes. I like to visualise the response to this in a word cloud. Are there any differences between people in the same role? Or different roles or departments?


Q12: Can you tell me a story about quality at this company?

Asking people to tell a story can help them to engage more with the concept. Is the story in accordance with their previous definition? Can they think of a story quickly, or does nothing come to mind? Is the story positive or negative? Is it about a recent event, or something that happened long ago? It can be useful to code the answers according to those criteria, and plot them on a grid (positive/negative versus old/recent). Are there any trends visible? Is perception of quality changing over time? What about the role of the person giving each answer? Is there any correlation between seniority? Position or role in company?


Q13: What makes you good at your job?

This gets to a key understanding about what each person considers to be important and salient to their success. I like to visualise the response to this in a word cloud, and compare difference between seniority and  departments.


Q14: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

Lighten things up! It doesn’t have to be a book even, but it can give you a sense of their outside interests, or even free time (“who has time to read with small kids?”)


Q15: Is there anything you think that I need to know that I haven’t asked?

This is an opportunity to allow people to broach anything else on their minds. Often there is nothing else, but sometimes this question can prompt some very interesting and revealing details about the company.

Next Steps

Now that you’ve done the analysis, what next? I think it’s important to share the results with everyone, as it represents a payback for time spent, as well as helping expose parts of the company culture that individuals might not be aware of. It can expose previously unknown pain points (or alternatively, just show that the current status quo is well understood).

More importantly, this analysis can be used to drive discussions, and possibly highlight improvements that might be attempted.

Other Alternatives

I’m curious to hear about what other people do to understand the dynamics of a team or company? Please add a comment to let us know!

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