10 mins

By being more deliberate in outlining your team’s culture through defining vision, core values, and group principles, you’ll be able to break out of an accidental culture mold.

When a group of people comes together, their habits merge, and the consistent behaviors that form are what we call culture. Those are the unwritten norms and rules that the group follows. Distinct groups will form different rules, which can evolve naturally over time. When new individuals join, they can align their behavior with the group to fit in, or, if they’re influential, can help change the group’s practices.

If there is no active push to align a team’s goals with that of their organization, its culture will develop accidentally. Since cultures form naturally, this applies to most teams. The direct impact is that your team may adopt practices that potentially move you in the wrong direction. This is not necessarily a “good” or “bad” thing, but it can bring about sub-optimal results as it relates to your team’s goals. 

How does accidental team culture form?

In small organizations (e.g., startups), the founders and original culture creators are close to the immediate teams and influence them directly. However, as the company grows, its vision and core values can dilute.

In turn, certain behaviors are normalized within the team setting through multiple factors. Outlined below are some common structures that can develop naturally. 

Legacy norms

Certain practices become part of a team's culture as it matures. At some point, no one in the team even remembers where the rules are coming from or why they were created in the first place. Think about some of your team's processes, and you should be able to identify them. 

For example, suppose a team had to deliver many prototypes quickly when it was first formed. In that case, its threshold for approving changes may have been and continues to be low, with a lack of willingness to enforce unit tests. The product attracts many customers as the company grows, and low-quality code reviews result in significant production issues.

Company values

Company values represent the company's goals, but they might not be a great fit for your team in their original form. You should consider adapting them in a way that works best for your team’s needs. For example, company-wide policies might encourage transparency and openness, but the implementation of that value needs adjusting for a team focused on safeguarding company and customer information. It needs to be clarified and expressed in a way that suits the team’s goals.  

Community standards

In software engineering communities, teams adopt best practices to achieve specific outcomes with a technology. This is common and widely encouraged. However, when a team builds strong habits around a particular technology stack, it could negatively influence the adoption of new technologies. For example, suppose a team has adopted the community-wide standards for C but needs to work on user interfaces with JavaScript alongside their C-focused tasks. In that case, changing the team’s habits is necessary for a successful adoption. 

New and existing team members

Each team member has unique experiences that have shaped them as individuals and professionals. Their beliefs will inevitably influence the team's culture and, in some cases, introduce new practices. For example, a new team member inspires the team to change one of its existing processes by demonstrating a superior way of achieving the same result.

The leader of the team

Formal and informal leaders, such as strong senior engineers, significantly influence the team’s culture. The team members look up to their leaders and, more often than not, emulate their actions.  For example, suppose a software engineering manager thoroughly reviews pull requests. By setting an example of this behavior, other team members will likely do the same. 

Critical events

Some events can profoundly influence the team and change its culture. For example, significant production outages lead to post-incident reviews, which may alter some of the team’s processes. And because a production outage is a highly emotional event, team members are much more likely to adopt the resulting changes to avoid repeating the negative experience.

How to identify if your team culture is accidental

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to validate whether or not your team’s culture is crafted intentionally: 

  • What is the vision for the team? A purposefully created vision for the team helps you determine what the culture needs to be. A lack of it indicates that your culture does not have a deliberate high-level direction.
  • What are the team’s core values? A lack of clearly defined core values means the team does not understand its cultural priorities.
  • What principles will make your team successful? The principles are the specific behaviors and cultural manifestations of the team. Without principles, the team does not have clearly defined cultural expectations.
  • Have you been through a period of intensive hiring and growth? Growth can upset the team’s cultural balance by introducing new behaviors and challenging existing ones. 

If you are struggling to answer the first three questions or have hired more than a few new team members, your team culture can use calibration.

A deliberate approach to building a team culture 

Here is where we start deliberately defining what our culture should look like. There is no “right” way to enact the steps below; what may suit one team perhaps won’t fit another. As a manager, you will know which steps are more appropriate for your team. 

Vision and mission

Your team’s vision can be a useful compass for its culture. 

If your team currently doesn’t have a vision to work towards, ascertain what the purpose of the team is and start framing the vision through this lens. Ask yourself the below questions and use the answers to understand where you can begin.  

  • Who are our customers? Answering this question will help you understand and agree on who your team is serving. This can have a profound impact on the team’s purpose.
  • How do we add value to our customers? This question will help you understand the team's competitive advantage. 
  • What are we best at? Answering this question will help you understand your team’s core competency. 
  • What can’t we be best at? This question helps you highlight areas to avoid, thereby helping you narrow down your stronger focus areas. 
  • What does the future look like when we are successful? Paint a picture of a future that will help you visualize what your team and technology look like when successful. 

Discuss and answer the questions together with your seasoned team members, manager, and business partner for more diverse opinions. 

Once you have collated everything you need, combine the answers into a forward-looking and ambitious statement. The purpose of the vision statement is to guide and inspire the team. ChatGPT can help you draft an initial statement by combining the answers from your team members, manager, and business partner into a cohesive narrative. 

Below is a sample mission statement for an internal SaaS platform team: 

“Be the driving force behind our organisation's digital transformation by providing a cutting-edge internal SaaS platform that enhances operational efficiency and decision-making. We strive to deliver user-centric, innovative solutions that empower every department, fostering a culture of technological excellence and collaborative success.”

To learn more about why vision is essential, “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek would be an excellent place to start.

Core values

The team's core values will help dictate your decision-making process and the team's behaviors. Focus on what these core values should be in order to help your team succeed. If you have a vision statement, you can use it to derive your core values. Stick to, at most, five core values to focus on the critical aspects of your team’s work.

A common approach to creating the list with your team is to:

  • Curate a list of values you think speak most to your team. If you don’t know where to start, you can find many examples available online.
  • Ask every team member to consider the ten values they think would make the team successful.  
  • Combine the answers from all team members and group similar values.
  • Work with the team to prioritize the final list.  

Some examples of the core values derived from the SaaS platform team’s vision statement above include:

  • Technology excellence – High-quality, system stability, and scalability of the system.
  • Customer focus – We are only successful when our customers are successful.
  • Collaboration – As a platform team, partnering with other groups and stakeholders is critical to our success.
  • Operational efficiency – Through shared software, we build generic solutions that solve a multitude of problems.
  • Innovation – Continuously evolve the system to serve our customers efficiently over time.


Principles expand on the team’s values by providing specific focus areas. They are an excellent guide for how the team should behave and can be used as a reference for improvement if someone on the team isn’t following them. This holds your team accountable and enables other team members to do the same. 

Here are some potential principles for each of the example values mentioned above. When doing this exercise yourself, keep the document short so it is easier to remember.

  • Technology excellence: 
    • Principle – We prioritize high-quality, long-term solutions over quick fixes in everything we do.
  • Customer focus:
    • Principle – We work towards understanding our customers and designing solutions for their needs.
  • Collaboration: 
  • Operational efficiency:
    • Principle – When solving a problem for a customer, we strive to design a generic solution that others can reuse.
  • Innovation:
    • Principle – We improve the system with each change by making localized code and design improvements.

Once you define the principles together with your team, you have an unambiguous expression of how people should behave. And this is your deliberately defined cultural blueprint.

How to bring about cultural change

If your team has existed without any expectations for its culture, you may find creating new routines or stopping old ones challenging. In a group setting, most team members need to change their habits before cultural change occurs.

Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy are great reads that explore habit building. 

There are a multitude of tools within your reach that can help you influence your team’s cultural change, as seen below. Combine as many as you can for more powerful effects.

Team buy-in

Invite the team to participate in defining the vision, values, and principles. Actively include them in this discussion and implement their opinions when defining each step. Empower them to take ownership and define the principles for values they feel strongly about. It will increase their buy-in and make them more likely to collaborate with you to implement the team’s new culture. 

Document everything 

Document and make the vision, values, and principles public for everyone to see. It will increase the team's commitment (now public) and make it easier to refer to specific principles when making decisions or holding each other accountable. 

Review your processes

Review your team processes and discuss areas for improvement. Identify the top two or three needing a re-vamp and start there. Once you are happy with the results, you can select additional processes to improve.


Consistent application of these principles will communicate to the team that you are serious about the changes and will enable you to continuously reinforce the behaviors you want to see. For example, consistently calling out a principle of commitment to high-quality and long-term solutions while making design decisions will reinforce it. 


Empower the team to refer to the documented principles and give feedback to each other. The team members who deeply care about a principle are your culture champions. Encourage and support them to uphold their beliefs professionally. 

Praise and encourage

Publicly praise anyone who practices the principles and values in team-wide channels. Do this frequently; it will communicate to the team that their behaviors are recognized and rewarded. Change is hard, so be gentle when giving negative feedback to people unless they are actively trying to undermine your team’s efforts.


One of your most potent tools to continuously ensure alignment with your culture is retrospectives. Use these sessions to discuss with the team how aligned you are with your vision, values, and principles. Make a note of the actions the team needs to take and, if possible, assign individual owners for each one. The initial cadence for culture retros can be once a month and then adjusted to once every three months.

Beginning your journey toward a deliberate culture 

If you start looking, you will find accidental cultural traits in every team. Changing this and being deliberate about every aspect of your team’s behavior is challenging. However, it can be done. Remember the 80/20 rule – you only need to influence the most critical 20% of the team’s behavior to get 80% of the value. Define your vision, core values, and principles to determine where to focus your efforts. The definitions do not have to be perfect; all you need is to start and then iterate.