Andy Kelk

Culture gardening

Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.

“Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

That’s the advice from Jim Collins in his 2002 book Good to Great. One of the findings of his research was that a large part of success comes not from the strategy you put in place or the processes you implement but from the people you work with. To quote one of the leadership principles of the 3M company: “Of all the pathways to growth, investing in our people is most important. The premise is simple – if your people grow, your company will grow.”

For people from technical roles, it can be hard to grasp, but the path to building effective teams is a lot more like gardening than it is like computer programming. People are certainly not as predictable as a computer and discovering what to do takes time, energy, determination and hard work. But the results are worth the effort you put in.


What is culture? It’s the ways that people behave every day – how they interact, what they do and how they treat each other. Every organisation has a culture and every culture is unique. You can’t transplant a culture from another organisation to yours. I would certainly advocate learning from what’s worked for other companies; but you need to analyse why something works and how it would fit in your environment. There’s no substitute for inspecting your own culture and taking actions to move it in the direction you want it to go.

Getting your culture right is of critical importance to an agile adoption. The most recent edition of the annual VersionOne “State of Agile” report highlighted the things that impede agile adoption:

“Of note, two of the top five causes of failure were related to company culture – company philosophy or culture at odds with core agile values at 42% and lack of support for cultural transition at 36%.”

That doesn’t mean that if your company culture or philosophy is at odds with the core agile values that you should give up. What it does mean is that you’re going to need to work harder, you’re going to have to pay special attention to the areas of conflict and devise ways to transition the culture of the organisation.


During any cultural transformation, you’ll have to confront the notion that “it’ll never work here”. You’ll hear variations of this again and again. “That company’s a start-up, they can do that” or “they have really smart people, we don’t” or “that’s not how we do things around here”. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that. Every company has the capacity to change and grow. You already have the seedlings which will grow and flourish if you give them the right attention. Pay attention to the people you have in your organisation and identify supporters for your change. Rally them to persuade others. Trying to lead a change by yourself is very lonely and hard. Look for your supporters. Get them on board to help you out – if you inspire the early adopters, they will bring others along with them.


I remember an agile transformation which hit the usual doubters in the team. One person in particular sticks in my mind – he was set in his ways, he didn’t want to change, he thought we’d all been brainwashed and didn’t want any part of it. He was placed into one of the new agile teams for a few months and the difference was incredible – from being the biggest objector, once he worked in a close-knit team he became one of the biggest proponents of the new way of working.

Once you know who is a supporter of what you’re doing, who is an opponent and who can be swayed either way, you can create a team with enough supporters to overcome any opponents. With a strong coach at the helm, a group can quickly sway the marginals and the opponents to become supporters.


Of course, you’ll always need to hire more people into your team at some point. Getting someone who will move you forward can make your life easier but getting someone who holds you back can do untold damage to the change you’re trying to promote. Always try and hire someone who will fit in with the culture you want to create and will help move the culture in that direction. Don’t hire for the culture you have now but for the culture you want.

Hire first for aptitude and attitude rather than skills. Think more about the personal attributes you’re looking for in a new hire than the technical skills you expect them to have. You can train someone to do a technical task a lot more easily than you can change the way someone behaves. Make this the focus of your hiring activity – from the words in your job ad through the questions you ask at the interview to the criteria you use for selecting candidates. Ask questions about their motivations, about the best team they’ve worked on, about what is important to them. And ask these early – before you get them in for a technical screening.

When hiring, involve the team the candidate will be working with. The last thing a team wants is someone joining them who they had no say in recruiting. Make time for an informal coffee with some of the team or a pair-programming exercise. Before you start hiring, you can ask the team to draw up a visualiation of their team roles. While you may be trying to find particular gaps in technical skills, it’s also important to find gaps in how the team works together.

In the 1970s, Meredith Belbin put together a set of nine roles that people play in a team. The idea is that teams can self-assess which role (or roles) they play on the team. By aggregating all of the roles played by current members of the team you can see where you have gaps and where you might need to recruit someone for a particular role.

The roles identified by Belbin are:

  • Plant: This is a creative thinker who often comes up with new ideas. However, they can be absent minded and may lack in execution ability.
  • Resource Investigator: This is someone who starts with a rush and can farm ideas and contacts from outside the team. However, they often lose energy at the end of a project.
  • Co-ordinator: This is someone who can chair the team and delegate tasks well. However, they can sometimes be perceived as just doing the delegation and none of the work.
  • Shaper: This is someone with great energy and passion to complete the tasks and who will try and motivate the team to do their work. The downside can be that they can become aggressive because of their drive.
  • Monitor Evaluator: This is someone who can step back and take a fair and balanced view of the work. However, they can lack inspiring qualities and can dampen enthusiasm.
  • Teamworker: This is someone who eases friction in the team and plays an important role in smoothing over differences. They often do this in ways that you don’t even notice. However, they have a tendency to not take sides when a decision needs to be made.
  • Implementer: This is someone who takes the ideas and input of others and turns them into concrete outcomes. They can be counted on to deliver. However, they can be inflexible or closed-minded.
  • Finisher: This is someone who has perfectionist tendencies and likes to go the extra mile to make things right. They have a great appreciation for accuracy which can be frustrating if the rest of the team feels that it’s a minor detail.
  • Specialist: This is someone who loves learning and becomes a knowledge bank for the rest of the team. They revel in getting better at their area. They can be narrowly focused on their area and ignore other areas the team needs to focus on.

It’s important to remember that one person can play a number of roles in the team. Mapping out your existing team roles and looking for a gap may give you clues as to who to hire. If you have no finisher on your team, try and evaluate candidates for their ability to play that role on your team.

Bringing people together into a team isn’t just something you do with new hires. In any transformation you’re likely to be shaking up your existing team structure. Many organisations move towards a long-lived set of small, cross-functional autonomous teams to deliver software. When these teams are coming together, don’t lose sight of the same principles that drive hiring a single person into the team – culture first, skills second.

I’ve seen many instances where groups of managers will sit in a room and try and design the perfect team structure based on the skills that each of those teams need with no regard for the personal relationships and the different human interactions. Some even act like school teachers and try and split up groups of people who get on well. The opposite approach is to allow people to choose which teams they work on. Which is precisely what the team at TradeMe in New Zealand did when they ran a squadification day where everyone was able to sign up for a team based both on the skills they offered as well as the people they’d be working with. The originators of that event – Sandy Mamoli and David Mole have written a book on the experience and give tips on how to do something similar in your organisation.


Beware of planting weeds. Weeds are crafty, they can sneak up on you without you knowing, they can trick you into thinking they’re pretty and letting them stay, then they take over – they strangle the other plants, they sap resources and nutrients from their environment and before you know it your beautiful garden is a weed-choked mess. And, yes, the same can be said of a bad hire.

A bad hire is not necessarily someone without the requisite technical skills. In fact, quite often they are high performers and very productive. However, they often display toxic behaviours which undermine the rest of the team. A research team at Harvard Business School recently revealed that the average cost of hiring a toxic employee is about $12,500 in costs of staff turnover. Quite often companies will overlook negative behavioural aspects because someone is very productive. But the research showed that even the top 1% of superstar employees only added about $5,300 in value. The traits that correlated highly with toxic workers were: being overconfident, self-centered, productive, and rule-following. That’s not to say that everyone with those traits will be toxic but you should certainly be on the lookout.


Lots of hiring managers believe that their job is done once they’ve got an offer out to a candidate. Actually, the job has only just begun. Onboarding someone into the company is a delicate task. If you’ve ever repotted a plant or moved it into a garden bed, you’ll know that getting the transition right can be tricky – a plant will undergo lots of stress and your job as a gardener is to transition it as painlessly as possible. The same is true for your new hires or new team members. Onboarding well can go a long way to negating the first-day nerves.

Onboarding is about more than just a tour of the building, pointing out the toilets and the break room. You want people to feel part of the team as quickly as possible. You can read a wiki page to understand the code, but you can’t do the same to understand the team. As with hiring, I would recommend that the team be involved in the onboarding of a new starter. How about decorating their desk? Or getting them a gift? Some companies will provide a swag bag for new starters. Another good idea is if each new starter is provided with a pre-paid coffee card to take some of their new colleagues out to get to know them.


Part of a healthy team is that people within the team grow and develop as the needs of the business change and as their own lives develop. When hiring for a role in a team, there’s many advantages to considering the people you have first. Someone already in the team knows the other people, knows the culture and knows the business. Why not consider someone who has the organisational knowledge but may need help learning some of the technical skills over someone who has all the technical skills but is starting from square one with the team. That may involve taking a risk – trusting someone to develop in a role that they’ve not done before. But by doing that you are repaying the trust that person has put in you and the organisation – that can be incredibly motivating for that person and others in the team.

Developing people’s skills is also something you should be doing well before the opportunity for them to move roles comes up. Having a culture which supports and promotes learning will inevitably help you when you’re building up the team. And learning doesn’t have to be about big training programmes or expensive conferences. It can be as simple as making time once a week for self-learning; promoting group learning through coding dojos, brown bags or bookclubs; or it can be encouraging participation in community meetups.


For all your efforts to get the right people into the team, to develop them and to build the right team, it’s inevitable that you’ll need to deal with people leaving. If you go back to the Jim Collins quotation: “get the wrong people off the bus”; sometimes it’s your duty to part company with someone who isn’t working out. Or it could be through their own choice. Either way, you should always treat someone leaving as a learning opportunity for you and the team and treat people with the same respect and dignity as when they joined the organisation.

If someone chooses to move on, it’s almost always too late to try and change their mind. No matter how valuable someone is to my team, if they choose to leave I am always genuinely excited for them and their next step. And I’ll always let them know that, if circumstances change, they are welcome to come back. It’s always great when someone comes back and rejoins your team after an absence – and they will bring new experiences with them.


Leading a team through a transformation can be one of the most rewarding activities of your working career. When you look at companies who run good teams, treat them as a source of inspiration. None of those teams came into being by magic – they were the result of months or years of work to get them to that state. And they all started with someone just like you. So get your gloves on, ready the watering can and get to work growing a great team.

One thought on “Culture gardening

  1. Hey Andy,

    Thanks for writing and sharing.

    It’s a long piece, but well worth the read.

    I’d recommend that hiring managers and teams looking for people and looking to grow would read your article and discuss it together.


    Happiness Nurturer
    CA Technologies

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