In this fourth post about applying agile principles at FutureLearn, Tessa Cooper, Director of People and Culture, talks about living your values, developing your people and focussing on feedback over comprehensive documentation.

Before you read this you might want to read the first couple of posts:

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Part 3: Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

The second line of the agile manifesto principles is “Working software over comprehensive documentation”. The reason this is part of the agile development principles is to remind teams to avoid falling into the trap of spending more time documenting how something should work than in actually building it and making it happen. This doesn’t mean there should be no documentation — it just means that you should use documentation sparingly and only when it provides true value to your team or your users. I believe the same goes for building a company and a culture.

Introducing company values

When we first introduced our Company values back in 2017 they were based on people’s existing experiences of FutureLearn. We shared them with everyone and then left the company to build on them and evolve them fairly naturally. We didn’t introduce a load of documentation about how our values should be used and what type of characteristics that meant our staff should display in what scenarios.

Running design sprints not only helps you rapidly create working software but it also helps you create a “working” team that understands one another and lives your company values

We also haven’t laboured them to new starters. Instead we hope people will simply see examples of our values in action within their first few weeks and understand the importance of them. Whether that’s seeing the People team talking openly about our staff turnover rate or gender pay gap, getting to have fun with their colleagues at a team lunch or away day, experiencing how their manager empowers them or others to take a lead on a new project, taking part in a design sprint where they are encouraged to think big about ideas for the future or participating in one of our many opportunities to learn together through study groups and learning hours.

We then check in on how much our values are reflected in the actual culture people experience through our staff engagement survey by asking questions such as “What three words would you use to describe FutureLearn’s current company culture?” or “Do you feel empowered to make decisions within your role?”. The responses to these types of questions show us where we are living our values and where we need to improve as an organisation.

Developing people

‘Culture’ is the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular group of people. So focussing first and foremost on developing your people and recognising their talents or contributions should be of the highest priority if you want to create a positive & productive company culture (or “working software” as it were).

We are focussed on creating an environment where people are able to give one another feedback on a regular basis and feel supported in their development. Already over 70% of our staff say in the last month they’ve received feedback from colleagues that will allow them to develop, 80% of our staff say they’ve discussed progress towards their objectives with their line manager in the last 3 months and nearly 90% of staff say they’ve received recognition for good work in the last month.

We’ve achieved this without much documentation — instead we’ve focussed on example setting, sharing ideas with managers on how to support their team’s development, and simply encouraging people to practice giving developmental or appreciative feedback to one another at any given opportunity. We want to get these figures closer to 100% though because we believe all of our staff should be discussing their progress, development needs and receiving recognition for their contributions. In the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing tools such as 15Five & guidance based on the best practice we’ve already seen across the company. We’ve also created a pool of “Manager Mentors” who we think are awesome managers and can support other managers with the development of their team.

So when is documentation needed when it comes to company culture?

We believe that clear and transparent guidance, principles and processes where decisions could be prone to bias or could be perceived as unfair are the most important things to document. This is why we are working with teams across FutureLearn to make the process for pay rises or internal promotions even more transparent. In fact many of our teams have started to develop competency frameworks and associated pay brackets that are now open to the public too.

It’s also why we introduced a recruitment toolkit which we continuously update as we learn from others around best practice. And in terms of clarity we are also working on making our existing company policies around things like holiday, sick leave, parental leave, equality & diversity and complaints or disciplinaries more accessible and easier to digest for all staff, in order to ensure everyone understands what it means for them and what to expect of FutureLearn as an employer.

We’d love to hear from you on the ways you get your company operating effectively — how do you embed your company culture without the need for comprehensive documentation? How do you decide when it’s important to prioritise documentation? Please share your experiences below.