"Mess up, Fess up" - 3 simple phrases to build a culture

I've had the good fortune to work at a great company for many years. Recently, a new person on our team shared that, during her interviews, she asked as many people as possible what made it a great place to work. And almost everyone shared that the one thing that makes the company special is "the people." It was so universal that she thought it might be a joke...or mass delusion. But a year later she agrees and shares the same thing when she's asked.

Hearing her story made me think about what "the people" really means. In general, people all over are good. So, this probably means more than working with good people. What I realized is that "the people" is code for our culture and how we work with each other. Now, a company culture is a complex thing. But if I had to think of a few things that describe it, I would use some of the phrases that our company is fond of using - and that I've also grown quite fond of. 

Mess up, Fess Up

It's okay to make mistakes. Creating a culture where your team is allowed to make mistakes is incredibly powerful. A key characteristic of high-performing teams is that they are fearless; fearless in that they believe they can solve any problem no matter how difficult. If your team is always worried about retribution for making a mistake, then they will quickly move from fearless to paralyzed.

The "fessing" up part is just as important, and, in short, it means taking ownership for mistakes. Building this second part into your team culture allows your team members to take responsibility, resolve the issue with the minimum of angst and politics, and get back to doing great things.

And most importantly, "learn". It’s critical to build a team where each person learns from their mistakes - and from their successes.

A word of caution: your company may not have this culture or may be critical of mistakes. In these instances, I don't recommend that you go around confessing. But I do highly recommend that you do everything you can to foster this culture within your own team.

Do Things Right, and Do the Right Things

As a technologist, you’re very likely to be some part perfectionist. And that makes it easier to do things well. We’re experts at what we do, and we do things right. But it’s also important to ensure that we’re doing the right things.

“Right” can mean a couple of things. It can mean doing good things. It can also mean doing important things. As a new manager, the most direct way of ensuring this is to focus on doing what’s best for your company, your team, and your customers.

To build a culture of doing the right things, you have to look for ways to hold you and your team accountable - starting with you. Take a few moments right now to think back about the things you did last week. Did you spend most of your time in meetings? If so, was that a good use of your time? At least 70% of the time, were you doing things that were productive? If not, what will you change about next week. Keep thinking. It’s probably tempting to rush on and get to the next point, but really take some time right now to think about how you spent your time last week. Was the majority of what you did last week working on the right things?

A good way to build this culture is to empower your team to question what they do. You’re working with professionals who are expert at what they do. Give them the authority to question their work.

In Lean methodology, “The Five Why’s” is a technique used to get at the root of a problem. Asking why repeatedly, each “why” reveals a deeper root cause in the chain of causality. With your team, this can also be a useful technique to ensure you’re working on and acting on what’s best for your customers and your team.

Say what you do, do what you say

One way to think about this is having the courage to commit to doing one or more things that are awesome today, tomorrow, and in the future. And then back it up by making it happen.

You can't be a successful leader and do only half of this phrase. Saying only what you do and then not delivering is a recipe for failure. And only delivering without declaration may mean that you get your work done, but no one can count on you because they don't know what you're going to do.

A way to ensure that you can meet your obligations is to "under promise and over deliver." As a technology leader, you can never go wrong with this. Keep this in mind every day and say it out loud to your team as often as makes sense.

There are two alternatives to this axiom. First, you promise and deliver exactly what you say you'll do - every time. If you're able to do this, then you're more than amazing...you're the 1 in a trillion. Or second, you fail to make your promises and under deliver to your customers. This is bad, really bad.

The only sensible thing to do is under promise and over deliver - every time.

A word of caution: this doesn't mean to sandbag everything you do. Instead, it means not to over promise what you can do. There's a happy medium, but as a leader, you want way more wins than losses.

A final note, your stand-ups (your Scrums and leadership check-ins) should epitomize "doing what you say". Too often stand-ups devolve into just saying the minimum to get the spotlight to the next person. Instilling this culture of accountability into your team starts with you as their leader.

Building a culture with these three phrases

  • “Mess up, Fess up” - Free your team to make mistakes and learn from them. This enables them to innovate and improve through taking reasonable risks. 
  • “Do things right, and do the right things” - Do your work well, but also do the right work. Empower your team to question what they’re working on and to change as needed. This can make it easier to evaluate critically if you keep the best interests of your company, your team, and your customers in mind as you’re making decisions on what to work on.
  • “Say what you do, do what you say” - Ensure you and your team are making commitments that you believe in, and then making them a reality. Treat your commitments like promises.

Together, these phrases will help you create a culture of trust and confidence; the foundation you want for your team.

Share with us: Have a favorite phrase or axiom that guides you? We'd love to hear it. Have an experience where you under delivered and would like to share what you learned? Share with us in the comments.

In Tags