What it’s like to work with an aspiring Deliberately Developmental Organization®

If you were a fly on the wall in almost any software engineering firm in the world, you’d regularly see certain key scenes unfold: developers writing code, work being done in Sprints, perhaps a hackathon taking place. What is perhaps less common are some of the key practices and ways of working around feedback, transparency and the testing of assumptions that take place here at Speed & Function. There’s a good reason for this: we are an aspiring Deliberately Developmental Organization® (DDO for short).

In this article we’ll introduce you to what DDOs are, what makes them different from everyday organizations, and the impact this has on the client experience.

What is a DDO?

Culture has been a buzzword and a focus in organizational theory for a number of decades, but DDOs are a relative newcomer to the field of organizational psychology. Where organizations typically prioritize the pursuit of profit first and foremost, DDOs are different in that they act as incubators for people development alongside the pursuit of typical business objectives. In a Deliberately Developmental Organization®, people development is not seen as an extracurricular activity but as fundamental to business success as sales and profit margins. In a DDO, individual development is put front and center every day through the adoption and integration of various processes and practices into the everyday functioning of the business.

There are very few true DDOs in the world, and in the 2016 book An Everyone Culture, organizational psychologists Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, and their research team from The Developmental Edge® explore the workings of three DDO®s in depth. 

DDO®s operate around a few fundamental principles. They understand that culture is strategy: that in and of itself, culture can steer the course a business takes and can determine to a large extent its success. To the people working in a DDO®, culture is about far more than perks or posters displaying values on the wall. It is embedded in each process, every layer of strategy and the entire way the organization functions.

DDO®s prioritize the realization of organizational and human potential side by side. They don’t send the top 5% of “High Potential” candidates off for coaching or development, but are committed to maximising and unleashing the potential of every single person who works there.

DDO®s also seek to eliminate a lot of the hiding, lying and faking that goes on in an everyday organization. In An Everyone Culture, authors Kegan, Lahey and their colleagues argue that in an ordinary organization, “Most people are doing a second job that no one is paying them for.” In other words, as people come to work each day, they are also pouring a chunk of their time and energy into managing how people perceive them, hiding their weaknesses, preventing their inadequacies and uncertainties from being exposed, or being “found out.” You might relate to this; as we enter the world of work, and then progress through various roles and levels of seniority, many people experience Imposter Syndrome, feel like they are somehow “blagging it” or carry a fear of being found out or exposed.

Within a DDO®, people strive to collectively create the kind of culture where this doesn’t happen. Transparency, feedback and radical candor are three key tools that are used with much greater frequency in a DDO® than in an everyday organization.

We are not yet a DDO®… But we’re also not a typical custom software shop or outsourcing firm either

At Speed & Function, we are in the relatively early stages of becoming a DDO®. Our co-founder and CEO, Nick Gluzdov, discovered this approach to culture in 2017 and says that it changed his life, shifted the vision of what he wants Speed & Function to become, and dramatically altered his understanding of his leadership. 

I used to struggle a lot with uncertainty and not knowing what was next. My amygdala would get triggered easily and I operated from a place of high stress, which spilled out into all of my working relationships. 

It was hard for me to be on that constant rollercoaster of thoughts and feelings, and hard for my team to deal with me in that state. In 2018, our HR team did a survey and found that 50% of the company reported they had a hard time working with me. Two years later, after a lot of work on expanding my developmental intelligence, the survey was repeated and just one person said I was hard to work with.

Cultivating developmental intelligence helps you realize that whatever the problem, you can figure it out. You remember that you can build the capability or capacity you need to meet and tackle any problem and that you don’t have to be stressed or scared. It gives you other options. I learned how to stop getting constantly stressed out myself and passing that on to others. 

Since then, Nick has been focused on continually championing and integrating developmental principles into S&F. We’re not ‘there’ yet and we know we still have a lot of work to do. However, there are a few things we do very well. These create the Speed & Function ‘secret sauce’ that creates such positive working relationships with our clients. Here are just a few of the reasons we’re unique and unlike any other dev shop you’ll have worked with before:

  1. We focus on alignment and trust-building first and foremost.
    Just under 70% of projects in our industry fail or experience huge challenges, according to Standish Group’s CHAOS Report and we’ve found that this often happens because of a lack of deep understanding of the business need, or a lack of alignment. When you work with us, we become trusted business partners, not just bodies working away in a cubicle. Our success rates speak for themselves: we beat the industry track record by 50%.

  2. We place high value on transparency during the software development process.
    This brings simplicity and eliminates time (and money) being wasted on building in the wrong direction. 

  3. We are unusually client-focused and available.
    We are based in the US, but many of our engineering team work out of Europe. However, unlike many providers in our space, our clients have direct access to all of our engineers and developers as well as their managers. Our clients tell us they really value this direct access to the people working on their products.

  4. We are highly adaptable and able to deal with complexity.
    While software development isn’t quite rocket science, it is quite far along the scale of complexity and brings with it various challenges: high levels of uncertainty, the potential for making costly mistakes, the need to take risks, and working in the unknown. These conditions are very stressful for most human beings (since we’re all wired to seek certainty). Therefore, a particular set of psychological, emotional, and relational skills is required to be able to handle uncertainty, risk and complexity without running into anxiety or a range of defensive behaviors that kick in to try to manage or control anxiety. At Speed & Function, we aim to build these skills so that we can handle complexity, risk and the unknown without adding stress into the mix.

  5. We ask for feedback often, enabling difficult yet important conversations to happen.
    We make it easy for our clients to tell the truth, ask for what they need and tell us what isn’t working.

  6. We have a culture of continuous improvement. We proactively seek solutions, and we also go beyond that, empowering everyone to voice potential issues before they become problems. We offer our people the chance to grow not just technically, but in terms of their mindset and emotional and psychological maturity, too. This means that our clients get to work with people who consistently focus on increasing their self-awareness, becoming more autonomous and growing.

How we work

Working in a DDO® is challenging. The environment is designed to accelerate employees’ growth, and this is done in certain key ways and through particular expectations. Here are some of the specific ways we incorporate a developmental approach into how we work.

  • Developmental Sprints®

Sprints are well-understood within the tech industry thanks to Scrum. In a DDO®, the same basic framework is applied but with personal or professional growth rather than product development as the focus.

Developmental Sprints® are designed to create traction on people’s most pressing improvement goals, in a time-bound period of four weeks. They generate deep insight and awareness into self-limiting patterns and how to overcome them, and accelerate growth.

At Speed & Function, we have worked closely with Claire Lee, Andy Fleming and the team at The Developmental Edge®, who pioneered this groundbreaking process. Some of our team members have trained as Developmental Sprint® Leaders, and we regularly invite and encourage our team members and contractors to take part in Developmental Sprints®.

  • Feedback is continuous, not a once-a-year event

In many organizations, feedback is an infrequent occurrence, something that employees hear in their annual appraisal or every quarter at best. In a DDO®, feedback is a regular and completely integrated part of the way the business functions. At S&F, we regularly ask our clients (and each other) for feedback, so that everyone we work with knows that it is invited and welcome, rather than unwanted and a threat. We know from experience that it can be hard to share when something isn’t working well, but our position is that we would much rather know what you want and need (and what isn’t working) so that we can pivot and adapt our approach. 

We also reflect regularly in-house, both individually and collectively, which helps us to become aware of any ‘blind spots’ and anticipate any issues from your side. 

  • We practice rather than avoid transparency

In many organizations, there is often a distinct lack of transparency across the business. The most senior leaders make decisions behind closed doors and then cascade those decisions down through line managers. 

When we learned about Ray Dalio’s approach to running Bridgewater Associates, a multi-billion dollar hedge fund, we saw that it’s entirely possible to do things differently. Here at Speed & Function, any member of staff is welcome to join our daily leadership meeting, and we run monthly All Hands meetings where we share high level financial details and give our people information on the company’s performance.

We know there’s more growth available in this area, too, but one thing we know for sure is how valuable transparency is.

  • We test our big assumptions.

Human beings are meaning making creatures operate with a vast array of assumptions that sit in the background, untested and uninterrogated, determining the decisions we make and the course of action we pursue in any given situation. 

At Speed & Function, we’ve learned the value of testing our assumptions. We don’t take for granted what we know; instead, we operate on the principles of radical curiosity and the willingness to learn and grow. There is always more growth available. We are constantly innovating the software we develop and engineer by a process of iteration, and we apply this to our own behaviours and habits, too.

In closing

It’s important to emphasize that we haven’t ‘cracked’ being a DDO® yet. It is something we are working towards – although certain practices, such as feedback giving and receiving, are fairly well-integrated into our culture at this point.

Even though there are many developmental practices built into Agile, the overall approach we take to culture and people development is atypical in the industry. Software developers have a reputation for being committed to code, but not exactly focusing much on their own personal development. Most wouldn’t associate their interior life with being relevant to the quality of the code they produce.

Here, we understand that self-awareness, developmental processes and transparent relationships are superpowers that can make a good custom software shop excellent, and an excellent one outstanding.