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Building a collaborative culture: How 18F works

Since 18F began in 2014, we’ve attracted, recruited and hired the very best people in the industry. Everyone here clearly meets the highest standards in their areas of expertise.

But just as importantly, everyone here has also been carefully vetted as human-centered contributors. We demonstrably care about the well-being and success of our teams, our co-workers, and our partners. Everything we do is delivered as a team, and everyone at 18F understands that.

We believe being diverse and multi-disciplinary — drawing upon different strengths and experiences — produces more resilient, effective solutions. We try to create teams composed of people with different and complementary skills and expect teammates to draw on these diverse strengths.

While our differences help fill our team gaps, we also have to be comfortable with the gaps we can’t fill. We are comfortable with our own incompleteness and consider it a strength to say, “I don’t know.”

And we actively work to help our teammates grow. We’re nurturing. We want everyone to become better at the work we do, and we want to model that for our partners. We expect teams to be supportive of each other, provide encouragement, work to build each other up, and help each other when we need support.

We also encourage participation in our labs, guilds, critique groups, and working groups, which provide even more opportunities to learn from and help each other.

All of this requires some key skills: communication, agility, and openness.

Communication

We have to communicate effectively in all we do. Just as we have to communicate well with our partners to be successful, we also have to clearly explain ourselves to our teammates as a way for us to grow together; to learn from everyone’s expertise and experiences.

And we have to communicate not just around what we’re doing, but also what we’re not doing. We have to talk about problems we’re not going to solve, and why. We have to talk realistically and openly about the constraints we face, the priorities we set. And we have to recognize when challenges arise that shift our teammates’ focus from the current project, with the assumption that everyone involved will communicate clearly and complete their work.

Agility

Just as we advise our partners to be agile and adaptable, we expect our teams to embody that adaptability.

We generally espouse the tenets of the Agile Manifesto and model these behaviors to adapt to the needs, strengths, weaknesses and dynamics of the full team—both the 18F side and partner side—and the project itself, in order to deliver value to our partners.

We have to leave dogma behind and understand there are many ways to do things, adapt accordingly, and accept that our teammates may not use exactly the same methods, tools, approaches, or processes as we do. We can focus on high standards, not standardizing every activity.

Our outcomes are more important than the process. Where standardization does exist, we focus on the intended goals (e.g. security, accessibility) and not simply compliance.

And when things get in our way, we turn. We anticipate that things can change, and we plan for it.

Openness

Without openness, none of this can happen. We have to be open to cross-pollinating new ideas. We have to be open to receiving feedback. We have to be thoughtful about giving useful, actionable feedback.

This applies both internally, within our teams, and externally, with our partners. This is what we’re trying to model, and what we want to nurture and see grow in our partners and propagate throughout government.

Above all, we’re figuring this out together. 18F, our partners, and our teams: we’re all figuring it out.

The problems are large, the challenges are numerous and ever-shifting, and there is no standardized playbook to follow.

We should continuously question the hows and whys of what we do, and keep working to leave 18F better than we found it. After all, we’re on this journey together.

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