Thick And Thin Culture

What to do, what to do, around this larger topic i’ve been banging against recently: the extraordinary thinness of culture in geekery.

I should say at the outset, I don’t have the answer. I don’t think there maybe even is a "the answer". And I don’t have an answer. I think there are several possible ones, but nothing in my mind at this time feels complete or well-worked out.

Still, fools rush in . . . So I would at least like to throw out a few ideas for us all to pick at and push on. Others feel free to propose alternatives and variations as we go.

The first thing I want to propose, the subject of today’s muse: I propose we heighten the elements in our current trade’s practice that center around "being with" as a kind of default-go-to-first-take when we encounter problems.

That’s a vague phrase, I know, but I think i’m pointing to something real, it’s rather that our current language doesn’t make it easy to point at. Let’s see if I can roll it out a little more with some explanation and examples.

By "being with", I guess I mean a couple of things. 1) as opposed to "doing to", and 2) as opposed to "being above or below". Being with is a kind of living together.

Case: you want to change your medical billing software so that your customers develop a greater sense of delight from using your product. You want to increase its value. (most of you, I know, encounter similar problems in your product/customer experiences, just transliterate.) thin-culture: have a sales rep meet your team once a month. Gather marching orders, in the form of a priority queue full of stories. Study and argue at great length about the "best" product. Have a PO a few times a week interpreting all that. And so on. Plan a release.

A thick-culture arrangement: find a midsized client who likes but doesn’t love your work. Pay for one or more people at that client to work half-time for you. Find some physical space where your team and your client persons(s) can both do their jobs at the same time.
Find one doable thing every week that will make that outside-inside person love your product a little more. Add it. Rinse, lather, repeat. Free your team from every obligation except steadily building that client’s joy.

This will cost money and require style & diplomacy & chemistry. but, it doesn’t cost more than the thin-culture approach, and unlike the thin-culture approach, we emerge with a great deal more.

We get at least one loyal client, and almost certainly many more who work in similar ways on similar problems with some portion of our client base. We get far thicker domain knowledge. We get immediacy. We get out of the house. We get fun. We get a better system.
This is "being with" your customers.

Case: you want to know just what in the name of all that is holy is actually going on down on the ground floor, because you aren’t getting the feature flow you want and you aren’t getting stability and you aren’t getting any sense of actual control.

Thin culture: devise an "objective" metric that has an easy acronym to remember and a slot in jira. Standardize the powerpoint for showing it. Hold your managers’ feet to the fire to make it better. Repeatedly tell everyone far & wide you want to know the truth at all costs.

Thick culture: take 8 weeks. Kill off upir meetings until they’re less than 2 hours a day. Join your team’s workspace w/exactly the same environment they use. SHUT UP ABOUT THE JOB FOR AT LEAST THE FIRST THREE WEEKS. Revel in chatting about everything that isn’t the job, just listen & watch. Make no decisions, give no orders. Just hang out. Learn them. Learn what they do and how they do it. Learn, especially, how they feel. Drink when they drink, eat when they eat, meet when they meet.

This is "being with". I know, right? crazy talk. What will happen to the rest of your org while you’re "gone"? Remember the case, tho, a) prolly nothing special will happen, and b) u already don’t know what’s going on, so this isn’t worse than that.

There are exactly two ways to know what is going on with a team a) live with them, or b) trust someone who lives with them.

What will you get? Oh, so much. You’ll get to know people way better than you did before. You’ll get to see what is really happening, not what you’re being told is happening. You’ll get a deep knowledge of where the actual controls are in the system, of which knobs matter.

Case: you want stronger geeks and you want to keep them once you’ve made them stronger. You see that you have a revolving door of noobs, w/folks barely learning the domain and the house "way", then moving on because someone offered them more money or a shorter commute.

Thin culture: institute rules so that your stupid geeks can’t do stupid things cuz they’re against the rules. Pay for some mandatory classes and look at everyone’s test scores and attendance. Resentfully give another pay raise to people you feel are already overpaid.

Thick culture: accept that the hard part of doing modern s/w is the human part: collaboration, translation, mutual priority. Build excellent physical/remote space. Hire collaborators w/any tech stack background instead of non-collaborators who already know your stack. Express no enterprise rules for geekery, only enterprise risk-prioritization. Hire pricey professional mentors instead of pricey professional tech-teachers or price professional process-installers. Introduce and emphasize the sustainable harvest of value. Eliminate deadlines.

This isn’t you being with, this is enabling your teams to be with, in this case, to be with each other. The price for this is actually low, except for deadline elimination, which seems scarier than it is. Lemme put it this way: you aren’t hitting those deadlines anyway.

(Irrelevant aside: I am still surprised that so many companies will pay a contracted "tech-teacher" three or four times what they’ll pay a contracted onsite mentor. That’s a pure thin-culture thing.) you don’t need more "experts" at coding. You need more people who can listen and talk and share and hang and "be with".

So there’s three cases. Of course, real mid-sized geekery outfits have many more opportunities to choose being with than just these three. But I hope you get a feel for what I mean by all this.

I notice my cases were aimed higher than the woman down on the floor. A forthcoming trick will be to go after some of those cases of being with, too.

Stay tuned!

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