Why Culture Matters in Organizations

I’m studying The Power of Team Culture on Coursera. These are my revision notes for weeks 1 and 2.

What are Teams?

  • A team is any group of people that performs some collective task on which they have to work together, that is, they have to cooperate
  • In businesses, there are many tasks that require coordination. It’s the job of management to make sure that people coordinate on these tasks.
  • It is the cooperation in the performance of a task that makes a group a team
  • “We” intentions versus “I” intentions

A Closer Look at Culture

  • Culture is whatever people learn from other people, and transmit to other people, especially by interacting with them.
  • Embodied culture is the things we don’t event need to think about (e.g. dribbling ball, singing anthem, attitudes to horse meat)
  • Values and goals that guide our actions
  • Teams need their preconceived routines, their ways of reasoning about the world and their goals and values

Culture as Cultivation

  • Cultivation of children – trying to make them more closely conform to the kind of people that culture wants them to be, giving them instruction or discipline
  • Modification of bodies through cultural practices (e.g. foot binding, ear piercing)
  • Performance in sport depends upon cultivation of the body (e.g. weight training)
  • Schools are institutions for the transmission of culture
  • Many teams do their own cultivation (e.g. McDonalds has Hamburger University, JetBlue University)

Being Unaware of Culture

  • We are not even aware of a lot of culture we acquire from others
  • For example, how close we stand to each other
    • Proxemics is the study of the amount of space people feel necessary to keep between themselves and other people
      • Intimate zone (0 to 18 inches in America)
      • Personal zone (18 inches to 4 feet in America)
      • Social zone (4 feet to 12 feet in America)
      • Public zone (beyond 12 feet in America)
    • These distances vary based on your cultural upbringing
  • Cooperation on teams involves expectations of this sort.
  • When the expectation are violated, the performance of the team can suffer

Expectations and Realities

  • Study about the difficulties people experience when they travel across cultural boundaries
    • Researchers wanted to know how the expectations that people had before they travelled abroad compared with their experiences to people who’d never left the United States
    • Groups: students who had never left the US, Peace Corp workers, and Chinese students living in the US
    • Draw up a long list of 33 things that might differ across cultural boundaries.
    • The students evaluated each of the other items on the list based on how difficult they expected their adjustment to the cultural differences to be
    • They ranked the items in terms of difficulty adjustment from 1 to 33
    • In many cases, expectations versus reality matched. However, some surprising differences with pace of life and punctuality. People expected that these would be easy to adjust to, but were actually quite difficult

The Little Cultural Things that Matter

  • Examples of differences based on Prof. Urban’s travels in Brazil:
    • Don’t waste time (US expectation) versus take it easy (Brazilian expectation)
    • “Game” of trying to run over pedestrians
  • GlobalPharm example:
    • hired top sales people from competitor, but a significant number had left in less than a year
    • possibly due to method of reporting expenses made new hires feel they weren’t trusted
  • All examples of culture shock

Culture Shock

  • A definition: Travellers are initially optimistic and have positive expectations regarding interaction with their hosts. As they actually become involved in the role relationships and encounter frustrations in trying to achieve certain goals when the proper means are unclear or unacceptable, they become confused and depressed and express negative attitudes regarding the host country.
  • There is a relationship between culture and feelings or emotions
  • Culture shock is related to mazeway disintegration
  • A mazeway as a kind of a mental map for life


  • Habit is second nature
  • Habitus: many of our habits are acquired as part of the culture in which we are immersed
  • Examples:
    • Brazilians ignoring lane markers
    • Food we like and dislike
    • Clothes, music, books, movies, hairstyles
  • Look at the teams you belong to, try to identify some of the habits, and likes and dislikes that are typical of the group

Characteristic Ways of Speaking within the Team

  • The team often develops recognisable ways of speaking
  • Unfamiliar acronyms, like AOB means “at or better”
  • Motorola: “the dog will eat it”
  • General Motors: “keep brands within their swimlanes”
  • Teams develop a specific habitus
  • We can regard the team habitus as contributing to the motivational basis for team success

What We Say Versus What We Do

  • Businesses come up with statements about what their corporate culture is
  • Can’t assume that what people describe is the same as what they do when they actually live the culture every day
  • Statements about culture are not necessarily accurate descriptions, but ratherserve some other purpose
    • e.g. Enron: public culture statement “We’re honest”. In actuality, fraud and deceit

Hiring and Cultural Fit

  • McDonald’s has “standard phrases”. e.g. “do you want fries with that?”
  • Example of employee hired as “sandwich associate”
    • let go 2 months later because not a “good fit”
    • they looked for a certain type of person who’s able to follow directions and to not take matters into their own hands
  • In developing a team designed to achieve specific goals, it is crucial that recruitment efforts be focused on finding new team members whose existing cultural orientation fits the culture of the team
  • The question hiring managers should be looking to answer is, “does this candidate’s values align with those of the company”

High Culture

  • “High culture” is cultivated tastes for the high arts and for learning (as opposed to the everyday things that we learn and transmit to other people)

Shakespeare in the Bush

Hiring as Cultural Matching

Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms
Author: Lauren A. Rivera
Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 77, No. 6 (December 2012), pp. 999-1022
Published by: American Sociological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41723081


This article presents culture as a vehicle of labor market sorting. Providing a case study of hiring in elite professional service firms, I investigate the often suggested but heretofore empirically unexamined hypothesis that cultural similarities between employers and job candidates matter for employers’ hiring decisions. Drawing from 120 interviews with employers as well as participant observation of a hiring committee, I argue that hiring is more than just a process of skills sorting; it is also a process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms. Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles. Concerns about shared culture were highly salient to employers and often outweighed concerns about absolute productivity. I unpack the interpersonal processes through which cultural similarities affected candidate evaluation in elite firms and provide the first empirical demonstration that shared culture—particularly in the form of lifestyle markers—matters for employer hiring. I conclude by discussing the implications for scholarship on culture, inequality, and labor markets.

Joe’s note: the above study looks into what happens, but is this actually a good thing?

The Great Convergence

I was looking for something to read on my commute, when I saw a tweet:


@KentBeck:I *knew* The Great Convergence was going to be awesome. 3% read and it’s already paid for itself. Tx @BaldwinRE

Of course I had to buy it! For what is in effect an economic text book, there are some fascinating insights.

Some snippets from the book:

In Phase One, globalization consisted of the gradual “humanization” of the planet. Globalization in Phase Two meant something quite different. The Agricultural Revolution allowed humans to settle down in villages, cities, and eventually civilizations, so globalization in this phase meant “localizing” the world economy.

Phase Three radically changed globalization yet again when the steam revolution launched a century-long sequence of developments that made humans the masters of intercontinental distances. Falling cost boosted trade, but moving goods hardly made the world flat—quite the contrary. By the late twentieth century, two-thirds of economic activity was clustered in just seven nations—the G7. Manufacturing was even more concentrated. To keep complex industrial processes working smoothly, manufacturing processes were microclustered inside industrial plants located in the G7 nations.

Phase Four has seen the economic foundation of this microclustering crumble as the ICT revolution lowered the cost of coordinating complex processes across great distances. Once it was possible to separate manufacturing processes internationally, firms pursued the option with gusto. They started moving labor-intensive stages of production from high-wage nations to low-wage nations.

Globalization was transformed by this North-South offshoring since advanced know-how accompanied the offshoring stages of production. It is these new knowledge flows that put the “New” in the New Globalization. They are what allowed a small number of developing nations to industrialize with a rapidity entirely out of line with historical experience, and this, in turn, reshaped the world economy in Phase Four.

The book goes into much more depth, and talks about the breaking of 2 constraints to globalisation (cheap transport, and effective long range communication)

Changes to XTC in 2017

The 10th January 2017 XTC meetup was a very active affair. I had asked the question “What shall XTC do in 2017?”. This involved a lot of talk of the history of XTC, and asking philosophical questions like “What is XTC?” and “Why would anyone come to XTC?”. I had a major a-ha moment as a result of these talks (more on that later). I think that there was also a sense of positive optimism and enthusiasm, and I left the meetup with a renewed sense of energy for XTC.20170110_all

Changes for 2017

Firstly, some concrete changes to XTC starting from now:

Fortnightly instead of weekly

For the moment, XTC will be held once a fortnight (instead of once a week, as it has been previously). The pool of XTC regulars has dropped from previous years. We recognised that we’re spreading ourselves too thinly. By cutting the number of meetups in half, we hope that on any particular meetup night there will be a bigger and more diverse group, and hence much better conversations. Depending upon how XTC goes this year, we may decide to tweak this further (in either direction).

Seed topic

The organisers will ensure that there is always a seed topic. Many people have noted that when someone proposes a topic to discuss before the meetup, it will naturally ensure that someone will be there, and that people know at least 1 thing that will be discussed. Sometimes the topic will give the incentive for people to turn up to argue a point 🙂

Jeff started things off by getting everyone who attended to propose a seed topic that they would be happy to talk about. After there were a good amount of topics, we all voted on topics that we would be interested in.

It so happens that the first time we voted, the most popular topic was “The Silver Bullet Fallacy”. Hence, this will be the seed topic of our next meetup on the 24th January.


New Co-organisers

Nader and myself are both organisers of XTC. However, both of us find it hard to find time to help with the organisation and promotion of XTC as much as it should. I asked for help, and @jtf, @sleepyfox and @tomwhoscontrary all volunteered to dive on that grenade. Thanks, all!

The Nature of XTC

With the XTC changes out of the way, there is one thing that I wanted to talk about: what is XTC? The website at http://www.extremetuesday.com talks about the nature of XTC as follows:

Working in XP can be hard so its good to meet other people and discuss common problems. It’s a professional network and support group.

  • It’s more than just XP
  • XTC encourages people to write papers, books, articles and run events to publicise XP.
  • XTC allows people to gain experience in XP practices when their day-job doesn’t.
  • XTC introduces people to the XP community.
  • XTC is a social club for like minded people to have a drink after work and put the world to rights! XTC has an anarchic spirit

Personally, I have found the above points seems to miss the essence. I agree wholeheartedly with the first and last points, but the middle 3 leave me a bit uncaring, as Extreme Programming seems such a minor part of what XTC is these days (at least in my experience, though YMMV).

I asked people who turned up what XTC was to them. Some initial answers:

  • People who do the things I want to do
  • People who have tried different approaches
  • People who I like to talk to (but maybe not like)
  • Extended colleagues
  • Colleagues you wish you had

I found these unsatisfying, in that they were all self-referential (XTC is the people who like XTC).

Then someone then hit upon the phrase “Continuity XP” (or “NextP”). XTC started off as a group of people trying to understanding the implications and context of Extreme Programming. It was a place to discuss the problem domain, and share experiences of different contexts where XP worked and didn’t work. Thas is, a Community of Need (using @PapaChrisMatts name). XTC is the continuation of that group. Some consider XP to be a mapped solution (now the nucleus of a community of solution). However, the original group didn’t just disband and go home. XTC continued to be the locus of a community of need, moving on to different problems in the software development space (lean, agile, large scale agile, action science, among many others). This was my major a-ha, the description of XTC that I always had a problem articulating: XTC is the group of people who look beyond the canned answers in software development. We see “solutions” as a limiting goal. We are the people who are always questioning the established wisdom.

What do you think? Come along to the next XTC and discuss! 🙂


Password Managers

Knowing that I’m a long way behind on my security practices, I asked some friends “What password manager do you use?” (with the proviso that I use Linux and Android at home).

I’ve decided to give KeePass a go, but for full disclosure here’s all the responses I received:

ST: I like LastPass. They LastPass got hacked last year, but didn’t lose anything.
Ah, they did lose hashes.
If that puts you off, I hear KeePass is good.
And that’s offline.
Though you’ll probably still want to sync it.

AG: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I use 1Password, the Linux client is shite
KeePass is nice but theres no decent browser extensions since foxpass died AFAIK
don’t trust lastpass for shit, their concept is whack theres been some dodgy phishing like stuff
like this https://www.seancassidy.me/lostpass.html
historically had some super dodgy defaults too, like auto filling sites without prompts, so JS could grab your credentials etc
no clue if they’ve fixed that
https://www.dashlane.com/ is a competitor to lastpass, no clue how it compares, go google around see if Taviso found any exploits
https://twitter.com/taviso/status/763801055725359104 apaprently there is

TD: fwiw I use keepass @tumbarumba , have for 7yrs+ now . zero issues. I don’t use a web client… good old fashioned copy pasta for me.

MS: I continue to love 1Password, which I’ve used for years. I find the following feature set unmatched anywhere: (a) easily sync securely via DropBox to all my devices on multiple platforms, (b) easily move/copy data between my personal vault, my family shared vault, and business vaults.

I hope someday that 1Password makes Linux a first-class citizen. If I were you, I’d suggest to them that they use Flatpak or the other similar thing. They are the ideal use case for secure cross-distro Linux software distribution with a containerized security model. If they jump on that train early, they could set the tone for a lot of security-conscious desktop proprietary software on Linux, I bet.

Charlie Stross Predicts 2017

Charlie Stross has written a series of blog posts which extrapolates current events into the next 12 months. It’s a glorious imagining of the future, but I’m afraid it doesn’t end well for humanity…

XTC 2016 Retrospective

xtc-squareIt’s been about 15 months since I first volunteered to help out with the organisation of the Extreme Tuesday Club (XTC). When I first started visiting XTC around 2005, I would turn up and could pretty feel assured that someone would be there (or more often 10-20 someones), and there would be awesome conversations. At the end of 2015, XTC was dying. The previous organisers had moved on, leaving XTC to mainly run itself. This was a problem: no one had turned up for over 3 months. My assumption is that people had drifted off to the slew of alternative meetups that had sprung up with better organisation and more focused topics.

With this in mind, the other organisers and I made the following changes over the last year:

  • Changed the meetup registration from the old spam filled wiki to use Meetup.com.
    • I think this was probably the biggest improvement over the last year. The old EditMe wiki was atrociously difficult to update (especially on a phone). It looked unprofessional and awkward. Meetup.com allows a single click to sign up, which greatly reduces the friction of signing up.
  • Changed the venue from the Bishop’s Finger to the City Pride.
    • The Bishop’s Finger was a great pub for our meetups – when we had the use of the upstairs room. However, towards the end of 2015 the manager of The Bishop’s Finger got fed up that no-one was using the room, and so they gave our booking away to another group. This meant that we were stuck downstairs in the noise common room, which many people (including me) found far too noisy to have a coherent conversation.
    • The City Pride has been marginally better, but probably not that much. The upstairs room is not always available, though the pub manager is generally happy to let us go up if the room is not being used. Some people have commented that they are disappointed about the menu at the City Pride (only pizzas are available)
  • Created a new XTC Slack Group
    • At this point in time, there has been no real discussion on the group. Having said that, it hasn’t really been promoted effectively.

Over the year, there were a number of good meetings. For me personally, the XTC Christmas Special felt like I had a number of good conversations. I was especially grateful to the people who came to XTC in October, and gave me some excellent feedback on my presentation on Value Streams. The Celebrating Jean Tabaka meetup was especially well attended, although I couldn’t make that one myself.

Despite my intention to attend as many XTC’s as possibly, I think I only managed to make about 10 or so meetups in 2016. There was still a very large number of meetups over the year that were completely empty. In general, I think that people will not turn up to any meetup unless there is a clear theme or topic of conversation. It is clear that XTC has declined a large amount from its zenith in the 2000’s. Chris Matts wrote a piece in 2015 about this in his article on Communities of Need & Community of Solutions. He wrote the following:

The needs of the London XTC community have pretty much been met. They know how to write software in small teams, and there are no significant community needs outstanding. As such, those interested in personal development now gravitate towards the software craftsmanship community.

I’m not sure I fully agree with this assessment, especially given that I see XTC as more than just XP. Rather, I see this as a disassociation from the original founders of the group, along with much more focused “competition” in the meetup space.

In the XTC Christmas Special meetup, I asked people what they wanted out of XTC. Based on this feedback, For the coming year, I’d like to try some of the following changes:

  • Change to fortnightly meetings. Currently, there are not enough core regulars who will consistently turn up to XTC every week. I’ve reduced the frequency of the meetings to fortnightly to try and make it easier to get more people coming on the same night.
  • Think about more focused discussions. In principle, I think it’s core part of XTC that people can turn up and talk about anything that is on their mind, without having to schedule a topic in advance. This will always be part of XTC. However, having a clear theme or topic seems to help people to decide to come.
  • Solicit more volunteers to help manage the community. Personally, I don’t have the bandwidth to give XTC my full attention.
  • What about XPDay 2017?

I’d like to invite everyone to the meetup on Tuesday 10th January 2017 to discuss Aspirations for XTC in 2017. Please come along and join in the conversation!

The Hosting of exubero.com has Changed

This is just an administrative announcement: I have moved exubero.com to be hosted by wordpress.com. It was previously hosted on a EC2 server and database. At the time I moved exubero.com to AWS, I felt it was an interesting project to learn the AWS tools and infrastructure. In that sense, it was a good way to learn. However, years later I’m running months behind on keeping everything updated with security patches and paying too much for AWS services. Given that 90% of my website was already running under WordPress, I decided to bite the bullet and let WordPress.com manage my site for me, allowing me to kill my EC2 server and save some money.

The transfer wasn’t quite painless: some of the URLs have changed. All the content is still available, but if you have any bookmarks, they may need to be updated, and the RSS feed location has changed too, so you may need to update your subscription.