Jason Bell
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Blog

A collection of blog posts, hopefully slightly less cringe-y than Live Journal, and who knows, perhaps they’re entertaining.

'The Thing' about Culture

Hello!

I recently spoke at BITR Conference in Newcastle on conducting user research for a service with no interface. I really enjoyed myself and despite blowing through probably 200 slides in less than 30 minutes I heard it went well.

One of the questions that followed the talk was how to engage the wider team and stakeholders in user research when they may be skeptical of its benefits. When put on the spot I answered the only way I know how, with a pop culture analogy. You see, if you haven’t guessed my schtick already, the way that I break down difficult concepts is mixing well-known pop culture tropes with product development. So when put on the spot my answer on how to spread good practice was, become the ‘Thing’ from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

For those unfamiliar with John Carpenter’s best film (fight me), let’s mosey on across to Wikipedia:

The Thing is a 1982 American science fiction horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr.novella Who Goes There?, it tells the story of a group of American researchers in Antarctica who encounter the eponymous "Thing", a parasitic extraterrestrial life-form that assimilates, then imitates other organisms.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing_(1982_film)

The ‘Thing’ represents an ideology or ‘otherness’ that can infiltrate a small group, changing a dynamic. Whilst this is a common theme in fiction including zombie stories (don’t worry, I’m working on a ‘zombie product’ blog), there’s a particular scene within The Thing which illustrates my point with beautiful 8-bit graphics.

When the ‘Thing’ infiltrates the group it will slowly assimilate every member until they are all the entity. The best horror is always a simple idea subverted, so what has this got to do with product development? Simply put, product teams are the crew and ideas are the infection.

The ‘Thing’ strikes and assimilates in private, rarely becoming visible to groups unless forced to do so. It is unspoken, hidden in plain sight and becomes part of the team, hiding in the shadows. Unless pressed (or burned with a hot wire) it does not become apparent. Our teams are influenced by culture and will assimilate ideas, sharing them across the group and building cultures.

In your team if the ‘Thing’ is spreading an inclusive and positive culture, championing user needs, ensuring everything is open and shared with stakeholders it becomes unsaid and standardised. I’ve been in teams like this and the positive influence has slowly infected other teams that we worked with. In this case the ‘Thing’ and spreading of ideas was a positive thing indeed.

However, what happens when things go wrong? Instead of a shared utopia, the ‘Thing’ that infiltrates your team is toxic, hidden and an abomination determined to usher in a new age of darkness, destruction and group-think? Instead of an open culture, we find ourselves living in a world of hushed conversations, gossiping, bullying, toxicity, tentacles and ideas unable to be scrutinised (delete where appropriate).

Ideas spread quickly and can change a work environment, often completely hidden from the site of others. You could be thinking that you’re building towards a right and noble cause, until your colleague tries to speak to you at the coffee machine about the benefits of Hydra…

How do you change culture if you don’t have Kurt Russell and a flamethrower?

Bring it out into the light

If you identify an issue bring it out into the light and make sure everyone is aware of any issues. It’s uncomfortable, it can be awkward, particularly at first, but once you do things will improve. State and define what you want your culture to be, put it in your manual, share it with your customers.

Test yourself

To build trust in your team, and ensure you aren’t getting carried away, it is imperative that you test yourself. Compare your actions to your organisation’s values and that of your own. Be open, be honest and address anything that doesn’t match up. Leaders lead by example and you can’t hold your team up to scrutiny if you won’t do it yourself.

Burn the infection

If someone is infected with a toxic culture can they be saved? More to the point, do they want to be? Dry out the rot, soothe the wound and rehabilitate if so. If not, sever the tie. It may seem harsh but culture is infectious and can’t be contained.

So there we go, utilise the ‘Thing’ to your advantage. Build openly and assimilate good practices. If there’s negativity, burn it with fire. It may seem simple and reductive, but culture is infectious, it’s up to your team whether you use it for good or evil world domination.

So with all that said, and that simile fully flogged, enjoy the trailer!