Called to save the day

Culture changes are difficult, but possible

The night was dark and the rain was poured mercilessly. In an old booth, a phone was picked up. “We need your help”, said a foreign accent on the other side of the line. “Count me in”, I replied.

Ok, it wasn’t exactly like that, but this is definitely what a movie adaptation of this story would look like. A former manager of mine started in a new place and in face of the challenge needed my help. And so I joined a startup.

The place itself is great: The people care about what they do and the product has some amazing achievements. There are even some very big customers.

Customers? Big? Here lies the problem : Fixing things as they break and always getting something out of the door is great when you are starting, but now the same traits that enabled us actually getting things out of the door are holding us back – The lack of process backed by a few heroes means that our customers are feeling the impact of our mess-ups, and we are set-up in a way where mess up is inevitable.

That’s where I came in: to help reshape the organisation to one that can deal with our future challenges. Or, as the management saw it: help their new test team lead to rebuild the dysfunctional testing team.

When looking from the perspective of organisation maturity, the polite way to put it is that there were a lot of challenges. In fact, it would also be accurate to say that everything was in shambles: The culture supported siloed teams, long deliveries were running late, no infrastructure to enable detecting a breaking change to the software, and as in any other place: there’s always a pressing issue to deal with instead of focus on the long term issues.

This is the story of how I came to help with a deep cultural change, how technology, people and process affect each other and how we are surviving this change. We are making constant progress, and so far I’ve learned a few lessons I believe are worth sharing. The first of which is: Culture changes take a whole lot more time than I initially thought. Let’s go together through the plans we initially had, see how (and why) we changed and adapted them and despite my wishes to have everything perfect by the talk, also about the challenges we still didn’t tackle.

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