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Culture Smell

A phrase I used in a discussion today. Developers are familiar with “code smells”, aspects of a codebase that aren’t necessarily wrong but do make you take a deeper look. By analogy, a culture smell surprising, but not necessarily wrong, behaviour on a team that should make you wonder what motivations lead to that behaviour, and what to change to remove or redirect those motivations.

It’s easy to get the wrong idea about culture though. Familiar with the developer concept of pure functions, some organisations seem to operate on the belief that by defining some principles and printing motivational posters, they can ensure conformant behaviour. Or that “the culture” is a concrete device that employees buy into.

Culture is the more slowly-varying norms established by the interactions between group members. You can guide, and lead, and of course admonish or eject, but you can’t control. As a result, more culture signals are “smells” than problems: what you see may not look right, but you have to explore more.

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