Saielle DaSilva: How to Hack the Culture Stack

Culture is the people operating system of a business. Leadership is the hard work of building and sustaining that culture.

Using the culture stack as a model, Saielle shows how you can take a lean approach to moulding the interrelated behaviours, systems and beliefs of an organisation to set standards, cultivate and distribute leadership.

She explains why psychological safety is the foundation of a strong and sustainable culture, what that means in practice and how you make it work.

You’ll learn practical tips on aligning your team, making better hires, and distributing your culture in a scalable way.

Slides

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Transcript

Saielle
Hey, everyone. Good morning. How you doing? Yeah. That doesn’t sound like you’re very enthusiastic to be here. We’re gonna have to give that another go. How are you doing? There we go. That’s better. I’ve heard that people in Cambridge are very excitable and that this is a great crowd. So could you do me a favour and just turn it up a little bit for me, okay.

So today we are going to talk about how to hack the culture stack. It rhymes, it’ll stick in your memory. Today, I want to talk to you about culture, why it’s important, and what to do about it. So about 4000 BCE, humans living on some planes gather around fire, and they start to tell each other stories. These stories start to build language, symbols, and shared understanding start to form tribes. Tribes, build cultures. Cultures, sustain human living. And all of it kind of starts with stories, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, why we matter. Names, surnames, the meaning behind the name, my name means lightning, your name means storm. These are the stories that we tell ourselves. And it turns out that the human brain is wired for story. We think and story. It is how we make strategic sense of the world around us. The world is big, and crazy, and complicated and difficult. And it can be scary. Especially if you’re surviving big predatory cats on the plains, you’re looking for ways to survive and stick with other people. So that you can do a better job at living to see another day.

I love this book. I read it like 10 years ago, the first time or something, and it’s just stuck with me. And I love quoting every chance I get because it’s really the fundamentals of marketing. And the fundamentals of culture building are largely the same because humans are pretty basic. Right? And I don’t mean in the pumpkin spice latte sense. I mean, in the sense that, like, the fundamentals of what it means to be human, are very, very approachable. And they’re very simple. But you have to focus on the really basics, we think, in story. So we have to support ourselves and support each other by understanding the stories that we tell. So this is one of today’s big points.

Yesterday, Roan Lavery opened with some really cool little camera icons of like, take a photo of this slide, if you want it. I didn’t have time to do that. So you’re just going to have to live with me telling you, hey, this is one of my big points. Hope that’s okay.

So, culture is a human operating system. What do I mean by that? I mean that stories and culture support, the way that we think the way that we process the world, the way that we identify and shape and share those identities with other people. I’m transgender, I’m a woman, I’m a person of colour. Those are my identities, how you receive those are shaped by culture. Now, I was told we’re not allowed to talk about politics. So I won’t be going into the geopoliticalness of my identity, but my existing is a political action because some of you maybe come from backgrounds where people like me aren’t really accepted. It is a political act, to put me on this stage and let me share some thoughts, right, because I’m existing publicly with you and we are sharing respect with each other, that is a kind of culture. Be polite to each other. That is a kind of culture.

Culture is the human operating system. It is how we build societies. It is how we build large scale collaboration and cooperation with each other. It is how we support each other through difficult times. It is how we know what to do. It is the written and unwritten rules that guide our behaviour. Software is a kind of artefact of culture when I say the word artefact, this is probably what you have in mind. You go Yeah, that’s an artefact. That is a pot. Somebody built it. They put some intent behind it and they manifested it in clay and now – 1000s of years later – we can dig it up and wonder, I wonder if that was just a drinking vessel or maybe it was used for religious purposes, which is kind of the I don’t really know what the, what this was used for. In this context, so I’m just going to say, general religious rituals are spiritual purposes, right?

So when we start thinking about artefacts, software is a kind of artefact. What I mean by that is it is emblematic and demonstrates human decision making human intention and human communication and intent. Jared Spool says that “design is the rendering of intent”. And one of the ways to think about software is that is an artefact it is a symptom of decision making.

Have you ever heard of Conway’s Law? Few of you. Okay. So Conway’s Law is basically, organisations tend to produce to their users or customers, the org chart that they’re aligned against, right. So if you have a Department of Marketing, Department of sales in the department of product, you have to fight harder to not ship those silos to your customer. Because software is an artefact of decision making software, we saw in actually the really brilliant live critique that we saw earlier, I don’t know your Twitter handle, so you’re gonna have to like, give it to us later if you have one. But software is an artefact of decision making. As we looked at the various websites, we saw that people like you and me, had gotten on stage, or gotten to their computer, and build a website to try to communicate who they are to customers.

And so software – which we’re all here to talk about today – reflects our decision making it reflects the values, right, one of the questions that you asked was really brilliant about who are your stakeholders? Who have you communicated with to make this website a reality? And I think that that’s so important, because that goes not just for websites, it goes for products more generally. And culture, I like to think of culture as a product. So we’re going to talk about how to think about culture as a product today.

So anyone read Sapiens, any book nerds in here? Cool. Yeah, cultures are built on myths. And if you want to change behaviour, you have to change myths. Once upon a time if you were a little weird or eccentric, they would burn you. Because that was the culture. Those were the myths they told themselves, this person is a witch, therefore we should burn her. It’s kind of BLEEPED up. Sorry. It’s kind of messed up. We have learned other myths, right? We’ve learned myths of tolerance, respect, working together, social responsibility to each other. And if we want to change behaviours, we have to change the cultures that support them. So why should you listen to me about all this? Well, I’m currently the director of user experience at kazoo. I’m a former White House technology fellow. I’m a product leadership coach. I’m obviously trans. And I’m an immigrant. Which means I have a lot of perspective on a lot of different things and have lots of strong opinions. Mark put me on stage so you’re kind of stuck with me.

So here’s some things about kazoo, by the numbers, we’ve sold over 40,000 cars, we have more than 17,000 5 Star customer reviews. I was the first design hire and built a team of 60 in like two years. We’ve done hundreds, if not thousands of customer interviews at this point. And we have about 60 UX people across a bunch of different disciplines now brought in 60 people who are largely happy, fulfilled, hardworking, and self supporting and self maintaining as an organism. Now, I know that that kind of scale is probably not what you’re working towards. For most of you, some of your companies might not even be 60 people. And that’s okay. There’s stuff that’s relevant to you as leaders, no matter the size of your company here, so don’t worry. It’s not just like, hey, look, I’m big box tech girl, and I’m going to tell you exactly how to do these things that don’t apply to you. We’re going to talk about something different today.

So, one of the questions I like to ask is, how might we design better workplace cultures? Why, again, culture is that human operating system. And so when I started to think about this and think about what it would take to do it systematically, I realised that actually, when you think about psychotherapy, when you think about behavioural economics, when you think about software and decision making, all these things are connected, right? And so I came up with this model that I call the culture stuck.

What’s the culture stuck? Well, culture is the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. So what is our culture? What are our values? And then how is that reflected on our behaviours? And then if we want to change those behaviours, or sustain those behaviours – the good ones – how do we do that? Well, I think I have a mental model that you might want to take a photo of. This is it.

So if you want to change behaviours, you need to work to change the systems. If you want to change systems, you need to change beliefs. This is systems thinking 101. But seeing it like this really helped me, I’m neurodivergent. I have ADHD, and possibly autism, I’m still working on a diagnosis for that. I don’t know, if you’ve like, tried to get a diagnosis for anything in the last two years, maybe while we’ve all been like locked down, but like, there’s some pretty long queues, people are doing lots of self discovery, let me tell you. So beliefs are things that inspire us and that hold us together at the micro level and at the macro level. I am a person of colour, I value certain things differently than some of you might. I value certain kinds of corporate culture differently than some of you might. And that’s okay. But the thing that holds us together at work, is that we can share those beliefs and they can drive us towards common cause.

Is anyone here using OKRs – objectives and key results? I know Bruce is! Cool objectives and key results are a kind of belief system, we believe that this objective, this thing that we could be doing is the most important thing that we can be doing this quarter this half the year this year. And we will know that we’re moving in the right direction by seeing these key results, right. So it is a belief met with action. And this is fundamental. Remember, I said it’s kind of going to be a little basic, right? But it is it’s super simple. Humans act on their beliefs. They do. So how do we change behaviours, ie the practices with which we work the practices with which we hire, the working environment and how we make decisions based on those beliefs?

Well, ultimately, the culture stack is a way to connect culture to strategy. And have you ever heard the quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast? Anyone? Yeah, look. So what does that mean? I think really, it means that no matter how good your corporate strategy is, if you have a vision for how to execute, but people are unhappy, they’re unsatisfied and they’re unmotivated. They’re just not going to perform as well as other people. Google did a big study on this called Project Aristotle. And in Project Aristotle, they were looking for what are the things that make high performing teams? The big one, when we start to talk about beliefs, is psychological safety. Great software – which we’re all in this room, because we care about great software – is the result of teams that are psychologically safe. What I mean by that is teams that feel safe taking interpersonal risks. So this is Amy Edmondson who really coined the term and popularised it. psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That’s not I feel safe generally, I have a paycheck. It is. I can take risks with you. You can take risks with me about being vulnerable, and we can have hard conversations and negotiate with each other about what is important. Psychological safety, I can take interpersonal risks with you. And you can take those same risks with me. That’s important.

Why? Because teams that are psychologically safe, support your ability to focus on your work. You ever heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Yeah, safety. The need for safety never goes away. That safety might change once you have food, water, shelter, but you need to feel safe with other people. If you’re worried about will these people like me? You’re not going to perform as well. So, as I was studying for this talk, I found this really great book. It’s called the four stages of psychological safety. There’s a link to it on my website, you can buy it. I don’t get any commission for it. The author’s name is Timothy Clark, you can give him your money. But Timothy talks about the four stages of psychological safety:

  • inclusion safety,
  • learner safety,
  • contributor safety,
  • challenger safety.

And the sad fact of the matter is that most of us aren’t here. Most of us do not have inclusion, safety at work. What is inclusion safety? I feel safe to share my personality, skills, and ways of thinking without feeling like an outsider. I feel safe to bring myself to work in a way that is meaningful, in a way that matters, and in a way that supports myself and my needs at work.

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Learner safety is I feel safe admitting I don’t know everything. And I’m not going to be judged or ridiculed for it. Right? People aren’t going to see me as ignorant/ stupid /worth firing, because I don’t know things it is safe to ask questions, right? Super important. Why is this important? Because if you don’t have this kind of curiosity, you can’t poke and prod at the products the way that we did in the live in the live critique. The live critique was how might we ask better questions about who is this for? What do they want? What do they need? What anxieties do they have? If you don’t have those curiosities, because you’re just trying to support what somebody else says, you’re not going to get great products, great products are the result of hard negotiations, great products are not the result of my genius, or your genius. They’re the result of many perspectives coming together to shape something bigger than any of us can achieve on our own. That’s what a great product is.

And many of us are not even doing inclusion safety. How many of you would say that you feel super psychologically safe at work? It is safe to share my personality, my skills, and ways of thinking without feeling judged? Okay, that’s like, maybe a third to half of you. How many of you feel like maybe questionable, right, I won’t make you like, say, My place is sh*t. But like, if you feel brave to raise your hand and say, I could, it could be better. Okay, like a couple. Thank you.

So psychologically safe culture. When we talk about things like challenger safety, is a climate in which raising a dissenting view is expected and or welcomed. Disagreeing is a sign of cultural health. Dissent allows us to have productive discussions about risks, and detect problems early. This is how the Toyota Takata system works, which is lean manufacturing. So the difference between Ford and Toyota, back in the late ’80s, is that Ford had people on the assembly line, who had hammer the doors into place at the end to make sure that the doors fit. And when they went to the Toyota factory to tour it to understand how they were manufacturing, they saw that Toyota did not have these people. And they asked, “Where are the people who hammer the doors into place?” And the story goes that the Toyota people were like, we just designed the doors to fit in the first place. So the early detection of problems and the ability to give feedback into a loop is shaping that culture.

There’s another thing, which some of you may have heard of, and some of you may not have. It’s called an Andon cord. The Andon chord is basically a stop everything call attention to a problem that Toyota used to use to unpack problems in manufacturing. As soon as I noticed a defect, we will stop everything mob on the defect, and then break apart once we fixed it. This kind of thinking this kind of feedback loop is shown in what people are doing. And all I’ve done with the culture stack is kind of go hey, this is what people are actually doing. Is your culture psychologically safe? We talked about that.

Okay. slightly related thread, but super important. Look, people stop taking your value seriously, how many of you are in a position of leadership? Cool, lots of you. You can say that your culture requires treating other people with respect, but too often openly rude high performers, brilliant jerks. [I use jerks. Aren’t you proud of me, Mark?] Brilliant jerks are privately disciplined, but they keep getting more and better projects, their status does not change despite their violation of the rules. So my question to you is, where are your values if you’re tolerating brilliant jerks, because ultimately the feedback loop between your behaviour and what’s seen is what your values actually are.

I’m gonna let you sit with this for a second. So they surveyed 1500 men in Canada and only 46% of them would try to directly interrupt a sexist event in their workplace. Where is the other 54%? Why would only 46% of people feel psychologically safe to interrupt sexism at work? There are a couple of factors that this survey found and you can find details on my website. But a climate of silence is a culture in which employees feel restrained from speaking about work related or cultural problems. Combative culture is one in which value is attributed to a quest to dominate or achieve status. So, you know, highly political environments where somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. It’s a very zero sum game sort of culture or a climate of futility. No matter what we do, people do not change no matter what the feedback is, or where it comes from unless literally, everyone’s brought on board. There is no impact.

Have you ever, I’m not going to call you out as having done something; let’s like, leave that aside. But have you ever seen or heard something sexist at work? Yeah. Okay. What did you do about it? I’m not going to ask you to raise your hand or call it out. It’s not important. I’m not here to shame you. I just want you to think about that for a second. What did you do when you saw that? What did you do to let the victim of that situation know that you were supporting them? And not just like, with your feelings, but with your actions? What did you do to make that situation better? What did you do to demonstrate your values?

What did you do? Think about it. Maybe you did something. Maybe you didn’t. Take this as an opportunity to think about that and ask yourself, what would I do differently next time?

So I know that that’s a really heavy question. And I don’t mean to scold you, it’s gonna be okay, I promise it’s gonna get lighter and better. So take a deep breath with me. Oh, come on, take a deep breath with me. Okay, let’s talk about values based decision making.

Again, we have beliefs, we have the beliefs that shape our values. The beliefs that undergird our mission as a company, our vision as a company. And then you have this middle stack, which is the systems that support it. To get to behaviour. You have systems. Systems are always happening, systems of behaviour are always happening. How do priorities work at your company? Who gets to decide what’s on a roadmap? Who gets to decide when to sunset, something who gets to decide what features matter? Who gets to decide what goes on the backlog? Those are systems of thinking, because they’re systems of decision making? So those decision making factors, they are shaped by our values too they’re just less explicitly called out values of whose opinion matters. Why does it matter? What do we do about that?

So one of the things I want to talk to you about today is how to use decision making principles to help others align with the future you want to build. Once you’ve cast a vision as a leader, how many of you would say I’ve got a cool product vision? People know what it is, and they’re aligned to it. No, no one? Okay, I have a product vision. Cool. All right. Some of you have a product vision. If you don’t have a product vision, let’s talk after or talk to Bruce, actually, because he makes money doing that.

One of the values one of the principles that I’ve given my team to approach hiring with is culture add over culture fit. And if you want the slides and the article about that, you can check it out there. One of the things that is really important here is we look for ways that people add to our culture, do they add perspective, do they add skill, do that add talents we don’t have right and we value that even over culture fit

You did a really great thing about even overstatements, and I use those all the time, because even overstatements are a really great hack for getting to principles that work. How many of you have ever seen like corporate values like trust, authenticity, Quality? You wouldn’t ever choose not quality, though. You wouldn’t you wouldn’t choose do this thing in a crappy way on purpose, right? I mean, you might do that. But you wouldn’t choose to espouse that on paper and go, we do things crappy, but kind of okay. You just wouldn’t do that. So the thing about principles is principles are supposed to help you make decisions. A lot of people start with principles, and they kind of go is this nebulous, abstract thing that I’m supposed to then find a way to just kind of like, aspire to? No, no. I used to work at Amazon. And one of the things that I really liked about the way Amazon talks is their principles, they’ve got a lot of them, there’s like 13 of them. They shape decisions, be customer obsessed, and be frugal. Those two things compete with each other. And so you start to have good discussions about in this case, should we choose customer obsession, ie do the best possible thing for the customer to the nth degree? Or do we choose frugality? Culture add over culture fit.

There are a lot of people who on paper would have the right qualifications and skills, but maybe don’t add anything new to our team, in terms of diversity, in terms of qualifications, in terms of skills? How do we start to think about what people add to our culture rather than what they fit? Make sense? Another one, is we hire for learners over people who are perfectly qualified people who are actively learning and improving themselves. Tell me about who your heroes are in the design community. I’m a UX designer so I asked about that. Tell me about the last blog you read, or the last book, you checked out? What’s a podcast that you like? It’s not just media consumption, though, it’s very much about are you learning? Who are you learning from? And how do you think about that learning? Why? Because that’s a curious person, I would rather work with a curious person than a non curious one. And the way that I value curiosity and taught my team to value curiosity, is to focus on learners, right? So we look at learners, we look for learners, because learners have curiosity. Learners shape themselves and their goals and their aspirations against themselves, that compete with themselves, which means that they’re internally motivated to, which is another really important factor.

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Here’s the thing. A lot of us tend to think of culture as something out there. And what I’m trying to do is make it really approachable and simple. Because actually, culture is in here. Culture is the things that we share with each other. Culture is the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. In product and design, we’re taught to scrap everything you think, you know, test and test again, look at the website. Who is it for? What’s it doing? Why does it matter? How many of you have HR people that think that way? How many of you as software leaders think that way about your culture? Maybe you don’t have HR people, maybe you are HR people? Just because you’re wearing a lot of hats, there’s a lot of founders in here. A lot of us are like, I’m too busy for that. It’ll sort itself out scale. First questions later, keep calm carry on. Please keep your hands feet and questions inside the dominant paradigm at all times.

Culture is a product. Culture is a product that is made to serve our employees and our customers, and help us make better decisions about what matters. And if we start to think about it that way, and we treat it like a product, we will get better products, because culture is the fundamental people operating system. It is the thing that unites us it is the thing that builds for large scale collaboration. Culture is how we achieve better results together.

So everyone still with me, you okay? Yeah. Heavy stuff? We all right. And then we need to like wiggle it out a little bit. No, yeah. Okay. Yeah, I see you wiggling. Thank you. Thank you for wiggling, I need to wiggle it out a bit.

So what I want to do is kind of talk about how do we bring all this to life? Saielle this is cool, it’s interesting. Whatever you’ve, you’ve really like done a number on me and asked me all these heavy philosophical questions on a Tuesday morning, and I’m not sure if I was ready for this. Sorry, Mark put me on stage this morning. So you can blame him but blame me too.

The hiring playbook. This is how we’re going to take this very heavy, kind of like open ended existential questions things. And we’re going to bring them down into like, what can I do differently as a software leader today/Tomorrow/next week? Your team is kind of like an organism. I don’t know if this is the Barbican, but it reminds me of the Barbican. Has anyone been to the conservatory? It’s really nice, right? I love plants. I love plants so much. I think they’re great. Your team is not an object. I think one of the very first things I’ve noticed from coaching other product leaders, is they tend to think of their team, the team that they lead as like a device; It’s got an input, and it’s got an output.

And I don’t think that that sort of thinking is right at all. I think a team is actually more like an ecosystem, or an organism. And it needs to be cultivated. And it’s a lot more like a greenhouse than it is like a computer. Every plant has individual needs. They need different amounts of water, sunshine, fertiliser, some cases, feedback, feedback, fertilisers, same thing. But your team is like an organism. And what you want to do is think about it that way and cultivate leadership. The word cultivate is really, really important to me, because I think so many of us, we get stuck kind of thinking about the ways in which we just want people to do things, right, I just need to delegate this because I need the results, which is important, but you won’t get there if you don’t cultivate that. And so being very intentional about growing leaders, and being very intentional about pulling leadership out of people is really important. The only way that you’re going to do that is if you make your principles obvious. So I’m going to talk about how we do this with hiring, because I think it’s a really simple and approachable example. And there are things that like, even if you’re not hiring, I guarantee that you can look at ways to make things better in your culture by thinking through some of these things.

So we put together some principles, some guidelines that help people work towards the culture that we want. We define skills based on behaviour. What I mean by that is, What should it look like for somebody to succeed in this role? Not do they have a cool haircut? Not do they have the best computer? Do they know the best skills? What are the behaviours that they engage in? Look for skill parallels. What I mean by skill parallels, if you’ve been in sales, you can probably do user research. You may not know that you can do user research, but you can probably do user research. And if I teach you to ask open ended who, what when, where, why, how questions, you can do the same sorts of things, because you’re already good at talking to people, we just need to teach you a little bit of skill, so that you can adapt and use those skills for something different. And then the other thing is, define your skills very, very clearly. Don’t go with unknown when I see it. Why? Because that introduces bias. And bias is an ugly thing. Bias is why there are people in the world who do not have the right sorts of jobs, despite their talent.

And I can tell you a little bit about bias because I’m an immigrant. My father was a hospital janitor, when I was born. I grew up poor. And I grew up in Los Angeles, California. We were not wealthy at all. My parents are from Brazil, I’m a Latina, the cards are stacked against me in any number of ways. And if it weren’t for somebody giving me a shot, I might not be here in front of you today, despite the intellect, the track record, the culture, and the ability to do the work. And so what we want to do is eliminate bias early and often and call ourselves out on it, where we do see it so that we can make better cultures.

And then we’re looking for people in technical skills that are very clearly defined as well. What does that do? It allows us to come together around a shared understanding of what matters. Then we built a scorecard – I’m going to show you this in just a second – but the scorecard is specific skills and behavioural things that we want to see. It’s a mix of technical skills and people skills. It’s articulated and understood by the team. And there is a shared understanding of what good looks like skill weights are established, and people discuss. For example, you want a three out of five on stakeholder management, or at least a two out of five for this role on user research. And here’s what that looks like.

So you can take a photo of this if you want to I would encourage you to do something like this with your team. As you think about hiring, if any of you are in an active growth phase, take the time to invest in something like this. Why? Because you will get better hires and better results from it. I guarantee it. Why? Because there is a shared understanding of what good looks like you’re distributing leadership across your team, you’re cultivating leadership from the people that are already there. And you build a self reinforcing feedback loop of what good looks like how to share in it, how to grow it, and people support each other and get involved in the process, right. So everyone who’s been through this process understands what good looks like, and every person that you bring in can reaffirm that over time. Is this making sense? Y’all Okay? I know it’s a lot.

When we pick a specific skill, like collaboration, we want to see that somebody demonstrates examples of involving their team and decision making. Why? Because that means that that person is open to feedback, it’s super important that that person is open to feedback. The best, most productive software does not come from brilliant individuals. It comes from brilliant teams, brilliant teams are not necessarily teams of geniuses. They are teams of people who are committed to working together, and having hard conversations and negotiating what matters. That was a mouthful. Brilliant teams are committed to negotiating with each other, to being vulnerable and to taking interpersonal risk to say, hey, I don’t think this is the best way to say this. Now, we had a live critique example, that showed us what that looks like from the outside. But there’s no reason that that couldn’t come from the inside. And it would be better for you, if it comes from the inside, it would be better for you, if somebody in your company is saying, hey, this could probably be better. This could be more awesome. We could do better. And somebody else going? Yeah, we probably could. How do we get there?

Here’s our process, super simple. Three interviews. We do a screening for culture and values at the beginning. Some of this stuff is like, I can’t share it, because it’s proprietary. But I can’t tell you the process. So we ask questions that are behavioural in nature, we ask questions about what are you learning? How do you learn it? Who are your heroes? Who do you look up to? We ask, we do a technical interview. And again, in the spirit of fighting bias, we don’t do a take home. Because actually, like showing up to the interview is important. And if I as a product leader, as a software leader, as a hiring manager, cannot do the work to get the results I need in a 90 minute interview that’s on me not on you. You’ve got kids, you’ve got family, you’ve got a demanding job, you’ve I don’t care, you’ve got Netflix to catch up on you want to hang out and play with your dog. I don’t care. That’s not my problem. My problem is making sure that I get the result I need out of a 90 minute interview. So we don’t do take homes. We give people a chance in the interview to do their best. And we focus on prior work with the exception of entry level where we might need a little bit of like, okay, what would you do, but we’ll do a live exercise instead. And we give people prep time for that.

The other thing that’s super important to the ways that we’ve built hiring is we have this thing we call the advocate, the advocate is a rotating role. So in every hiring panel, the advocate is a person who their only job is to look for ways in which the person that we’re interviewing could add to our culture, right? So if the rest of the panel of six is determined to like, find weaknesses in a person, we have one person whose only job is to find this person’s strengths. They advocate for balance in the discussion and they help the team balance perspectives. And then we use that scorecard as a very literal sort of bias check and we go, did the person fulfil blah, blah, blah, why?

One time I was working for a company, and we interviewed somebody who the team was not sold on. And I said, What did she do wrong? And they said, she’s just kind of quiet. And everyone nodded sagely. And was like, yeah, she was a little quiet. Maybe she couldn’t do the job because it is consulting and it requires a lot of like, personality. And I was like, does it really? What about her personality tells you that she can’t do the job. And I asked that question, and suddenly there was silence in the room. I was like, oh, Oh. What about this person’s personality or skills, says that she can’t do the job? Actually not much. Turns out, we hired that person, because I pressed and she was the best team lead that that office ever had. She was smart, cogent, articulate, capable, well measured, and had great rapport with clients but because on paper, she didn’t fit what was clearly understood to be the cultural values at the time, it was difficult for people to imagine that she would succeed or thrive in the role.

So we do a panel debrief. And this is just really like a simple up or down. And the whole point is having a discussion, right? Again, put your values on show, make people live and interact with those values every single day. When you have discussions about software, when you have discussions about people that you’re hiring, make people on their opinions. What does it mean that you disagree? What did you see that I didn’t? The other thing is the minority opinion goes first to avoid groupthink. So we want to hear the detractor first. So everyone does a quick thumbs up or thumbs down. And we make the you know, if there’s two yeses and one, no, we make the no go first so that the others can hear it. We give feedback to the candidates again. So we show them our values, hey, this is what we’ve observed. We would like you to have this feedback. Because we care about you, and we care about your career, you may not be a fit for us, but you’re a fit for somewhere. And we ask them for feedback, right? How was our process? What could have been better? What could we have done differently? And then the candidate feedback is distributed to the hiring panel that talk to the candidate. Why, again, so that we improve our culture and our hiring practices in our process. Why? Because culture is a human operating system, we treat it like software, we treat it like a product, we’re always improving. And you know what people love our hiring process. What we’re trying to do here is stitch beliefs and systems to behaviours. Why to get better results, the outcome that we’re going for is highly motivated, highly talented people who can work together to build better software. This is how we do it.

That’s it. You can you can check this out on my website, blossomat.work. And I would love to take some questions. And if you do feel like pitching in a couple bucks, there’s my gender stuff fundraiser.

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Q&A

Audience Member
I have a generic question on culture, which is, is if you’re trying to build diverse teams, which will differ in both their age, their background, their diversity, and their view to certain subjects? How do you handle a sort of increasing culture wars we have. So the classic vaccine versus anti vaccine where the Leah Thomas and Emily Bridges should be allowed to compete in certain competitions or others whether Donald Trump is had the election stolen? I’m curious to know how because you, on the one hand, don’t want to avoid them. On the other hand, you don’t want to have a team argue and you want to move to the base camp, let’s just pretend it doesn’t happen. And as some of these questions are existential to your business, so if you’re not a fan of the Chinese government, so if you buy into their viewpoint, you if you want to do business in China, you will have to buy into their viewpoint. So I’m wondering how you handle these increasingly complex cultural issues that we have in our society?

Saielle
Great question. Generally, if you can’t talk about it, respectfully, don’t talk about it. If you cannot respect each other at work in a meaningful way, don’t talk about it. If you can’t be trusted to respect each other, don’t talk about it. First off, Second off, I don’t hide my values – I’m a trans person of colour, like, you can imagine where on the spectrum I fall. I don’t hide my values. If you’re not overtly racist, I’m probably going to leave you alone and just say, these are my values. You’re allowed to have yours. I don’t particularly care in the workplace. Like, it’s difficult, but I live. I live skirting that line in that balance. And it is hard to do. There are no easy answers, right? I can’t just pick one of those examples and say, This is exactly what you do. It will depend on your company, the makeup of your team, and what it means to be inclusive and safe in that team. So if somebody is crying that they’re being silenced, are they? If somebody complains that it’s not safe to be conservative, is it really not safe to be conservative? Or are there consequences for saying overtly racist things? There’s a spectrum there.

Audience Member
Thanks very much. It’s fantastic talk really enjoyed it. I think what the gentleman down there is, is partly distinguishing it’s different from politics and culture. So I’m completely on board with you about culture, and everything you were saying in the hiring process. But what happens, for example, base camping, a bit controversial, but let’s just take Coinbase as an example, they really struggled as a business owner, because the people inside Coinbase thought that they should be doing something different politically, to what the business owners decided to do. So they took a they took a stand, which, and I use Coinbase as an example, because perhaps it’s on a political spectrum that I don’t necessarily agree with. But I can understand as a business owner, they’re saying, we’re in business, we’re not here. Our business is not a vehicle for a particular political position. And so at what point do you distinguish the difference between cultural values, inclusion, and safety, which I don’t think anybody would disagree with? Excuse me. I’ve just had COVID, it’s just awful. Nobody talk to me. I have testified negative since Thursday, but forgive my voice, my voice is a bit croaky.

So yeah, the difference between culture and inclusion and safety. And obviously, a lot of that is regulated by employment practices anyway, you can’t you legally can’t discriminate, you legally have protection in the workplace for all of this stuff, versus taking a political stand about topics. So you’ve just said, for example, maybe you’re conservative, maybe you’re racist. Now you’re obviously expressing and you’re inferring, that somebody being conservative, actually leads to bigotry? Well, I don’t think that’s fair, I think there’s lots of people who consider themselves conservative, they also might consider themselves religious, or a person of you know, faith based values or, or some other kind of form of, of economic or cultural family culture, which they don’t consider and frankly, will be a little bit unfair to to decide to describe them as racist or bigoted, just because they want to have a different lifestyle to somebody else. And whether they decide to take that to the workplace or not, is a matter for workplace cultural management and prevention of discrimination. But at what point is the business owner this level? Are we saying we have to run our flag up, you know, for these three topics, and not those three topics? Because that isn’t culture, that’s political.

Saielle
Okay. So let me tell you where I stand, I can’t speak for anyone else. I think it is complicated, but actually kind of straightforward. We live in a society that has historically benefited from the exploitation of people of colour, that should not be a shocking fact or statement to anybody in this room, given colonialism. Given the fact that wealth that exists in Europe today has historically come from places that were abroad. And that people living today have benefitted from the transfer of that wealth out of the native societies that it came from, to our society today. What you do with that, as a business owner, what I can say is that personally, I think Coinbase, Basecamp, and other companies that espouse to be apolitical, are just reinforcing a status quo that is fundamentally racist. That is my opinion. You can agree or disagree with that. I will respect you regardless as a person, but that is my stance. The reason for that stance is I believe that the status quo is complicated, and denying facts or pretending that they don’t exist because they’re inconvenient, does not make us better. Candor makes us better. Honesty makes us better. And so I will own my opinion and say, Yeah, I think Coinbase is a company that I would not patronise or work for, because I think that their apolitical stance reinforces a certain kind of politics. I think that their stance reinforces a certain kind of worldview that sees itself as a political but there’s anything but because everything we do is ultimately political.

Audience Member
Thank you. I’ve got a question around, I guess how you create a cohesive culture. So we had this chat yesterday for the last culture talk, I think in many ways, our company has a lot of shared values. But when you look at things like speed versus quality, and you start to ask either/or questions, I think then you start to see pockets of like cultural differences, maybe between departments, or between people who report to particular leaders. And while it might seem quite nuanced, actually, when you track it back, you realise, actually, this is the source of pretty much every fundamental, like disagreement that we have is we want it fast, and they want it good. And I guess I’m curious, what are some of the ways that you can maybe realign or bring back together those, you know, those Well, meaning equally valuable, but slightly different belief systems?

Saielle
Yes, that is a great question. So when it comes to things like that, one of the things is to identify and articulate the lack of shared understanding, right? So hey, what does quality mean? In this case, quality could mean, it’s the best possible thing that it could ever be in, we have to ship it right the first time. There are certain places where that might be valuable, right? Like, you don’t take your risks with legal and iterate on compliance in most cases, right, just because create a lot of risk. So I think one of the things is articulating which risks you’re trying to manage for, is a really great thing, bring people back to basics on what are the things that we’re choosing to optimise for? What are the things that really matter here and what are the risks that are very, very big, what are the riskiest assumptions that we’re making about this? And so speed, what does speed mean speed at a certain quality, right. And so I tell people, you can fix the scope, or you can fix the time, but you can’t fix both scope, ie how many features or what the future quality looks like, or the time ie whatever we’ve got by x date, that’s what we’re shipping, you can’t do both, you can’t say we want this many features by this date, you can do one or the other, and still have a meaningful trade off, right.

And then the other thing is, as a product leader of some sort, making sure that you articulate what you think is feasible, by x date or by what quality might mean, I think is really important and get people to align on what risks they’re mitigating for. And if there is somebody who can make a decision about which risks are the most important, get them to articulate that back to the team and kind of share that out. Right. So if the engineers want to pay off some tech debt, for example, very common case, the engineers want to have some tech debt. And the business is saying, but we need it shipped by x date. Can you negotiate some sort of truce? Can you negotiate some sort of agreement? Can you say, actually, we think this feature is important enough that we want to touch at once and not touch it again, for the next 18 months? Could we do that? Right? What is the ROI of doing that? And I think it’s on the product people, whether they be a designer or a leader of some sort, or a product manager to say this is what we’re trying to mitigate for and actually, the overall cost of ownership of this thing might go down if we ship this much quality versus this much. And it’s about creating options and scenarios. Right? One of the best stakeholder management tools is to give people lots of options to play with, right. So I typically do two or three options.

Audience Member
Yeah. I really enjoyed this idea of the how you give feedback to the candidate. But I also wondered, like the actual mechanics of that, because it must go through like one is it forces some kind of little change the kind of feedback that that is given as well, which I think is great. But I guess it has to go through some kind of reducing valve and how would you give it- is it verbal? Is it written? Or how does that process work?

Saielle
So in cases where somebody is clearly a break, and just doesn’t fit what we’re looking for, it doesn’t add to our culture in any meaningful way doesn’t have the skills, we might do written feedback, that’s just a couple of big pointers, because there’s some low hanging fruit, maybe that they should kind of fix for their next job. And then in cases where somebody made it really far, and it was a harder decision, we’ll do that face to face with the hiring manager. And it’s typically just 15 minutes, but it is a hey, this was actually a really hard call. These are some things I think could use some polish. Do you have any questions about that? And we do a follow up email with like five bullet points Max, right. It’s three to five things that can help you on your next one. That’s really like the value that we’re going for. They’re

Audience Member
I suspect this is really a talk in itself. But I just wanted to ask about the actual advertising of the job because obviously, how you phrase your requirements actually will depend upon who applies in the first case, I know there’s lots of studies about how women assess job, requirements versus men? So do you have any tips of like how you go through that process of making it more inclusive and getting the audience that you want?

Saielle
we use a tool whose name I can’t remember now, because of course I can’t – thanks for putting me on the spot. But we do use a tool that checks for bias. And we use, you know, we run our listings through that. And then the other thing is like, turns out, if you use non gendered language, you’ll get more applicants from either end of the gender spectrum or anywhere in between. Whereas if you use specifically male language, that masculine language that focuses on things like power and domination and control and like sports metaphors, you’ll see less candidates from other backgrounds applying. And so if you want the diversity, do the work.

And the other thing is the scorecard helps us write the job descriptions. So we use that scorecard for literally everything and also in year one was the basis for our like progression framework. Because again, scorecard is like what we’re hiring for. If we’re hiring for that. It’s really the same thing. It’s a different lens on the same thing for how you grow at your job and how you progress. Cool. That is time. Thank you so much for listening to me.


Saielle DaSilva

Director of UX, Cazoo

Saielle’s approach to org design was informed by her time as a volunteer in the wake of hurricane Sandy in October 2012. In the midst of a catastrophic event, volunteers had to act fast to help people, save lives, and transform chaos into effective response. A few activists were able to organize mutual aid, provide deep coverage of actual events, and feed people long before established organisations.

Saielle’s worked with AT&T, Amazon, Pivotal, has been the Director of User Experience at Cazoo, and is now Global VP of Experience Design at StepStone – one of the world’s leading job platforms, active in over 30 countries worldwide.

Find out more about Saielle


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