Toggle Menu

Blog > Agile > Gift Card Bank – A Generative Culture Success Story

Gift Card Bank – A Generative Culture Success Story

“Yes, you will find many useful and necessary ideas and tools to teach the team along the way. The most useful thing you can bring to the team, however, is simply this: you.” Lyssa Adkins, Coaching Agile Teams Culture Starts at the Top I’d like to share an example of organizational culture and how a […]

By Dan Greenberg

October 14, 2020

“Yes, you will find many useful and necessary ideas and tools to teach the team along the way. The most useful thing you can bring to the team, however, is simply this: you.”
Lyssa Adkins, Coaching Agile Teams

Culture Starts at the Top

I’d like to share an example of organizational culture and how a leader can set the tone for it. Borrowing from a 2004 Robert Westrum paper, organizations can be neatly classified into three groups (pathological, bureaucratic, and generative). The paper makes a pitch for generative cultures, arguing that such cultural environments enable the most productive and efficient work. I recently was privileged enough to witness these philosophies in action in the form of Gift Card Bank and its CEO, Khalil Fuller. For some background, Gift Card Bank is a nonprofit that aims to redistribute the roughly $3 billion worth of unused gift cards currently circulating the planet to those in need. Founded by a Stanford graduate student (Khalil), the website and its underlying infrastructure were built and launched because of the efforts of volunteers. The site is currently live and uses a robust platform that ingests gift card donations from individuals, collects requests from those in need, matches gift cards to requests using a sophisticated machine-learning algorithm, and enables site administrators to easily distribute gift cards to their respective matches. The entire platform was built over a six-month period, an achievement that many multi-billion dollar corporations with large teams of software developers at their disposal would envy. Exactly how did Gift Card Bank pull this off? The answer starts with culture and organizational culture starts at the top.

Difficulty is Inevitable

The Westrum paper categorizes organizations based upon the way they handle difficulties – difficulties which are inevitable. Pathological organizations seek to assign blame, bureaucratic organizations seek justice, and generative organizations look for solutions. At Gift Card Bank, we dealt with personality conflicts among team members, shortcomings with third-party web services, inadequate skillsets, a constantly changing team, and disorganized roadmaps and product visions. I’ve been in plenty of situations where the response to these types of issues, as is tempting, tends to be a search to assign blame or to create a bureaucracy that theoretically could prevent any issue from ever coming up again. However, that way of responding does not solve any of the problems or lead to an effective end product that actually serves its customers.

Response to Challenges Frame a Culture

What I found so refreshing about Gift Card Bank was that at every step of the way, when we encountered one of the above difficulties, Khalil showed up and courageously sought solutions in the face of the temptation to seek blame or create additional complicated process. As a player in the IT consulting field, we at Excella naturally find ourselves in the middle of many of these same difficulties, working with organizations struggling to release a quality product to the market that customers are excited to use. When a company comes to us, they want our expert opinion on what the answer is – what the solution is to their problems. Gift Card Bank’s story highlights exactly what that solution is.

In the End, Working Software Rules the Day

When telling that story, I could present a before-and-after narrative of development team velocity, number of defects, deployments per day, security vulnerabilities, even metrics around team morale and employee retention. I could present this narrative if I wanted to try and impress the reader and make a flashy sales pitch, but I submit this instead: a working product that customers are actually using, that is creating real change, helping people in need, and having a positive impact on society is the only meaningful metric.

Now, I ask the following of you: try out Gift Card Bank’s site, get a look at real working software in action, and see what Excella was lucky enough to help create. That’s the kind of cultural impact that Excella can bring to your organization.

If you’d like to learn more about Excella’s work with Gift Card Bank, check out our showcase.

Category: Agile

Tags: Culture, Leadership, Pro Bono

You Might Also Like

Change Management

Agile Change Management During Agile Transformation

Change Management encompasses the processes, tools, and techniques to manage the people side of change...

Agile

WIP Limit Zero: How Slack Makes Us More Creative

Doing nothing gives us the space to develop focus, process our experiences and find the...