Understanding team culture

February 17, 2020

I was recently talking with a potential client about a position that sounded interesting. Like most of the work I do, it would mean leading the UX and shaping the team's objectives and goals. Additionally though, it would be similar to my teaching at design schools or my newly launched "Pick my brain" - the sharing of knowledge to help a team reach a higher goal.

The discussions were going great and I was truly excited about the project. Being a client that has one of their offices nearby from where I live (and have my office), I realized that the discussion of remote or on-location would surface. He had already mentioned that they had a couple of designers at another office too, so I figured working remotely wouldn't be an issue with weekly or bi-weekly office checkins. But as discussions were about to finish up, he said that "as such an important part of the work is to help form the culture, he strongly believes that I should be on-location at least 4 days / week".

I was a bit amazed to be honest. I admit that there are benefits to working in the same location, but I was baffled that people still so strongly believe that physical presence is needed in order to perform work.

The discussions have left me wondering why this struck a chord inside of me and what I believe.

The SuperFriendly Model

As you might already know, I'm a big fan of the SuperFriendly model (aka Hollywood model). To recap, here's how Dan describes it:

When filmmakers make films, they pick the people who best embody each role. David Fincher doesn’t always use Brad Pitt, even though he was fantastic in Fight Club and Se7en. Christopher Nolan doesn’t always use the same lead actor either. Leonardo DiCaprio was awesome in Inception, as was Guy Pearce in Memento, as was Christian Bale in the Batman movies, but you’d never interchange them—they were too perfectly cast. Leo as the Dark Knight? “I’m the king of the world, Alfred!” Too weird.

Similarly, SuperFriendly “casts” the best person for each role in your project. SuperFriendly doesn’t keep a full-time staff. Instead, we use what we lovingly call “The SuperFriendly Model.” We scrutinize your project’s needs and summon a super team—handpicked from among the best folks in the industry—to collaborate.
About SuperFriendly

But if shaping a culture would mean you need to be in the same office, wouldn't that mean that these teams would be completely without culture?

What culture is

Well, first of all, I think we need to state the obvious. Regardless of what you do and where you are, you're going to have a culture. It might not be a great one, but it's sort of like physical appearance. Regardless if you workout, wear make-up, or eat junk food you're going to have one. It will surely differ depending on your choices, but either way, you're going to have one. Culture is just like that.

I recently started a new project with SuperFriendly and it's my first experience directing a project with them. I was fortunate enough to get to work with Jessi Hall again, who also produced our project for Toast last fall, but also have Sāra Soueidān (who I've followed from a distance for a long time!) and Sarah Azpeitia on my team. So if culture requires someone to be on-location, how would I be able to help shape a culture for a team of four? We're not just in different countries and timezones, but actually on four different continents!

In the back of my mind, I've been processing what I think the foundation of a great culture is and how that tends to lead to at least better project results (and sometimes amazing results).

Sometimes you need the input of someone else though to put your thoughts into words:

Alex clearly articulates what I think defines culture and all of these points will exist whether you are in the same room or thousands of miles apart. Some of them might be completely lacking, like being allowed to share ideas and critique, but I've experienced that in many offices too.

Working with SuperFriendly, I thought it'd be interesting to ask Dan (who founded SuperFriendly) thinks culture is:

Regarding culture, I’m a big fan of the way Daniel Coyle talks about it in his wonderful book, The Culture Code. First, the single-sentence prologue of the book says, “CULTURE: from the Latin cultus, which means care.” In the book’s introduction, Coyle sets his own definition: “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

At SuperFriendly, we try to start every project with a conversation about how we might care for each other and our clients. We do this by putting all personal and professional goals on the table and actively committing to and even being responsible for helping each other achieve those goals. Whether sitting in the same room or working in a distributed way across multiple continents, good culture fit happens when disparate goals begin to converge.
Dan Mall

So again, culture is clearly more about how you relate to one another, care for another, and treat people as... humans striving towards a common goal.

It’s honest, authentic, and accessible.

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