I’ve been reading Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim about implementing DevOps techniques and how doing so drives performance of teams.
One of the chapters introduces Westrum typology – a way to categorize teams based on their culture directly tied to their results. Dr. Ron Westrum identifies 3 different types of organizational cultures categorized by how they process information: pathological, bureaucratic and generative. In his 2005 article A Typology of Organisational Cultures, Westrum describes them like this:
- Low cooperation
- Messengers shot
- Responsibilities shirked
- Bridging discouraged
- Failure leads to scapegoating
- Novelty crushed
- Modest cooperation
- Messengers neglected
- Narrow responsibilities
- Bridging tolerated
- Failure leads to justice
- Novelty leads to problems
- High cooperation
- Messengers trained
- Risks are shared
- Bridging encouraged
- Failure leads to inquiry
- Novelty implemented
Westrum’s research tied teams with generative cultures to better outcomes. The research presented in Accelerate uses the same model and correlates technical teams possessing generative cultures to better performance. However, it’s not just the research that indicates this, it has a personal appeal too. I take a quick look at what makes a generative culture and I think, “that’s the sort of team culture I want to be part of.”
Interestingly, research that Google conducted about effective teams came up with a similar conclusion. They identified 5 dynamics present in highly effective team – the most important by far being psychological safety.
[Psychological safety] … was the single most important dynamic in an effective team. Psychological safety is about risk-taking and being comfortable with vulnerability. People who don’t feel psychologically safe worry that taking risks will mean they’re seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive. Psychological safety means feeling confident about admitting mistakes, asking questions, or offering new ideas.
This type of psychological safety is closely related to what Westrum describes as a generative team. Information is shared freely, no one is punished for failure or bringing to light undesirable information.
Not only is aiming for a generative culture the right thing to do for individuals within a team (hopefully they’ll be happier and enjoy their work and lives more), it’s also the most responsible thing we can do. We can get more done together, achieve better results for our organizations, and enjoy it more by fostering a generative team culture.
I still have a lot to learn about how to foster a generative culture, but I’m fascinated by the far-reaching impacts that are possible by creating an environment that allow others to thrive and information to flow quickly and easily. In the information age, this is what good leadership is all about.
Westrum, Ron. (2005). A Typology of Organisational Cultures. Quality & safety in health care. 13 Suppl 2. ii22-7. 10.1136/qhc.13.suppl_2.ii22.