Every company and every team has a distinct mission and a culture. It doesn’t matter if it’s defined and articulated in words that each team member can recite or if it lives in the subconscious of a team. You can feel it when you enter the office or join a call, you can get a grasp of it during the interview process. Whenever I have an interview as a candidate, I enjoy asking the question about the company mission and its values. In most cases, the answers are vague and people say something like: “Yeah, we actually had a session when we defined something along these lines, but it was some time ago” and then start looking through the internal documentation or their own public website to find those.
At Secfi we have defined a list of values that we come back to quite often – each of us is encouraged to give feedback/praise to a colleague at any moment and while doing it one has to select one of the values that the feedback is falling into. Also, during the mid-year and end-of-year reviews we score each other using the same list of values. All of this works well for the whole company, because each team or department in a company has its own unique vibe and set of HOW’s or culture differentiators. They correlate with the company-wide ones, but are still unique and special to the function and people on that team.
The engineering department at Secfi is actively growing and, at the moment of writing, we have 21 colleagues. We decided that this is a great moment to discover our WHY and HOWs as a department. The reason why I’m saying “discover” and not “define” is that the culture and mission is something that’s already alive and in motion – we just need to discover it, to do a specific exercise that helps to uncover something that all of us already feel and live by.
What we wanted to achieve
The main goal was to discover our WHY and HOWs. But why?
It’s more or less easy to keep the unspoken culture alive and strong when you don’t have new people joining – everyone knows everyone, processes are well defined and followed. Things change when the team is actively growing. Since the beginning of the year we have new people joining every couple weeks. Now it’s clear that we need to have these things well defined. To go further, we need to reinforce them by some daily/weekly/monthly/quarterly activities that somebody has to think about, prepare and execute. Another important point is when you have your WHY and HOWs defined it’s much easier to interview and assess people on a cultural fit. This goes both ways – it’s easier for us as a company to assess a candidate while the candidate themselves will be able to easily find these materials on our public website. To achieve these goals we decided to organize an (almost) full day workshop for the whole team.
What happened in the workshop
The goal of the workshop session was to find out how the engineering department contributes to and what the effect is on the company and the world. In the session we reflected on successes and special moments when the team was at its best. Situations when we felt proud to be part of this team. Events that have shaped it as we are today.
A small but very important side note here: while I suggested the idea to do this workshop the following way, it would not be possible to actually do it without the relentless efforts of Sarah van der Laan. She organized the room, equipment, lunch and arranged everything with all possible stakeholders 🚀
The whole workshop consisted of several blocks of activities which we took from the Find Your Why book written by Simon Sinek, which is a great resource along with his other book “Start With Why”. Both books bring understanding to why it is important to start with why in every situation – at your work or at home, or somewhere else. The “Find Your Why” gives step by step instructions on how to do it on a personal level and on a group or tribe level.
The workshop opened with an introduction of the methodology and background followed by an icebreaker. For the icebreaker we divided all participants into groups of two and asked each colleague to share something that inspired them to join the company. This activity took just 5 minutes but set a great foundation for the further discussions and interactions.
I will not list here all the details of the workshop – I encourage you to read the book and organize one in your company or team. What I will share is that after roughly 5 hours (including breaks) we had plenty of material to define our HOWs, our culture and a solid draft of our WHY statement as a department.
On top of having a draft for the mission of an engineering at Secfi we have achieved multiple goals.
Everyone felt like an active part of the tribe.
People shared stories that made them feel proud to work here. We received great positive feedback on the spot and during the week following the workshop.
Some of the testimonials:
"The workshop itself was our best to date, I don't know what I'd change"
"We need more events like this!"
"Can you share a guide or just your experience organizing it? It would be nice to have more workshops and sharing your experience might give ideas/inspiration to people"
"Everything was perfect! Thank you!"
"[I enjoyed] the collaboration, everyone was involved in the process."
"The exercise, the vibes, the fun"
Actionable next steps brainstorm
We brainstormed actionable next steps for our department and decided to pick several of them as soon as possible. There were quite a few great action points that came from the brainstorming. I would split all the ideas into three groups – 1) one-time actions that are quick to implement; 2) bigger mid-term projects that need a bit more brainstorming and ownership; 3) broader ideas that need some thorough review and thinking. Overall the list looks very exciting.
You may have noticed that I have not shown any of our WHY or HOW statements in this article. The reason for this is that at this moment we’re working on finalizing the WHY and refining our HOWs. For this we asked several volunteers from the team to join and now the five of us are preparing this and the next steps that we’ll describe in more detail in the following article. Thank you for reading and I hope that our experience will inspire you to do the same activity in your team and or company.
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