How to Cultivate an Open Culture

What is an Open Culture?

An open culture in an organization is to have a motivated and committed team that trusts one another and works together to sustain and grow their company. In an organization with an open culture, everyone should be able to receive and provide critical feedback in a meaningful manner with transparency and respect. This leaves no room for defensiveness, blame, and other ‘ugly’ cultural characteristics that could hinder an organization’s healthy growth.

Before working towards an open culture, you should determine what an open culture means to you, your organization, and what it should look like in a future state.

How to Cultivate an Open Culture: Getting started

Know your starting point

To cultivate a healthy and sustainable engineering organization through open culture, start by working on a type: entry-hyperlink id: 3W994dd5uFd4QtzhqF6Smq. Take an honest look at your challenges you face toward building an open culture.

If you are a leader within your team, you’ll first want to understand how you, personally, address delivering difficult feedback to your team. The key to having an open culture begins with the patterns set forth by you, and the team will more readily follow your lead if you model the change you’d like to see in the larger team.

To get started, take a look at how you reacted during and after your last SEV1 (critical) incident or how you handled a team member’s poor performance. Answer these example questions to help you rate your team’s openness:

  1. Was feedback shared? How was it shared?

  2. Was the feedback positive or negative?

  3. How did the recipient react to the feedback? What was their demeanor during and after the feedback was shared?

  4. What were the outcomes of the feedback? Did the feedback inspire the change you hoped to see?

You’ll want to make a list of potential problem areas and come up with ideas to address them. Surveying your team can also help find additional areas to be addressed, but you should be sure to receive constructive feedback well and be clear about the intended outcomes.

Openness is subjective, so you will have to determine your own level of openness. As a rule of thumb, if it feels bad, it is probably bad (or not open).

Begin Implementing Your Open Environment

After you’ve identified your challenges, the next step is to build your plan to reach your ideal future state.

Change starts with management. Therefore you’ll need to identify how you will get your team's leaders to buy in and demonstrate the attributes you’d like to be the norm. Your leadership team will have to “walk the walk” first, so once they feel ready and committed, you can move forward with getting the rest of the organization on board.

For the rest of the engineering organization, you’ll also need to ensure psychological safety without fear of repercussions from a mistake while you engage in transforming your culture. Begin by acknowledging the level of responsibility being placed on your team. Human error is inevitable, and by openly recognizing this, you will cultivate and maintain an open culture. Turn mistakes and oversights as launching off points to promote a constructive feedback loop. For example, implementing a blameless incident retrospective (postmortem) process has been demonstrated as an excellent and proven approach.

Next, you may want to focus on how you motivate your team to embrace these changes. Provide them with the autonomy to do their work, create inclusion in the process, and acknowledge their role in this cultural shift.

Recognize that change is hard, so be sure to make incremental improvements over time, leading the change with open dialog and clear intentions. Follow this up with receiving feedback about the changes, adjust them to meet the needs of the team and organization, and reflect frequently on how it’s going. Also, openly acknowledge that mistakes will happen, and embrace learning from them to help build psychological safety.

When your team recognizes how valued they are, they will be more cohesive and more likely to promote inclusiveness and respect. When people willingly listen and respect one another, you will unlock your culture of accountability and trust and achieve a healthy and open company environment.

Here are some additional tips for working towards open culture:

Allow for open-ended conversations. This may lead to insights that a structured feedback loop would not surface. Additionally, this may provide a safe space for your team to express views they would not typically share and suggest ways to improve.
Set goal paths for everyone on the team, and make sure each person understands the roadmap that can help them achieve their professional goals.
Maintain patience and continuously check with the team on their professional development.

You Can’t Force a Culture Shift, and It Doesn’t Happen Overnight

It’s important to know that you cannot force the transformation of your culture, and even with the changes you attempt to implement, it won’t happen overnight. So be patient and stick to leading by example. Also remember that each group of people is unique, and you’ll need to adjust your transformation to meet them where they are, then iterate.

This great quote on the Signal v Noise blog from Basecamp CEO Jason Fried clearly sums it up well:

“You don’t create a culture. Culture happens. It’s the by-product of consistent behavior. If you encourage people to share, and you give them the freedom to share, then sharing will be built into your culture. If you reward trust then trust will be built into your culture.”


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