How 'The I to We Ratio' provides quick cultural insight

I'm doing some consulting for Simple in Portland, and I'm struck by how cohesive their culture seems to be. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, where this impression was coming from. I figured it out after attending a few meetings and watching team interaction, and I have a theory. I call it the "I to We" ratio - basically, how many times in a meeting, or a gathering, does someone say "I", vs how many times they say "We". 

This is a good barometer of how connected to the company an employee feels, and how they perceive their level of integration in the team. It also indicates feelings of ownership, empowerment, and how an organization treats the idea of blame. Simple's We to I ratio is about 10:1, which I think describes how connected to each other they seem. It creates the feeling of warmth I notice, that they have each other's backs. Work being done is the focus, over "root cause analysis", which all too often turns into a witch hunt.

Think about when you use the word "I". Often at work, it's to talk about something you did, or didn't do. It might be about how you feel. In an integrated, healthy organization its usually something like "I filed a pull request" or "I updated that documentation". In an unhealthy one, it's "I didn't know I needed to handle that" or "I'm taking longer than I thought to get done, I'm trying." "I" is more often used defensively, whether to defend your actions or to defensively self promote - "I made a tool that handles that", "I fixed the certificates problem."

The word "I" isn't the problem in and of itself - it's when it's concordant with defensive tones. This is a difficult thing to notice, but an easier metric to test for is the absence of the word "We", alongside "I". "We" sounds like collaboration, and it evokes the sentiment that We Are In This Together. "We need to handle that 2-factor auth bug", "We just deployed to prod", "We don't know why this error happens", "We got the batch processor up again". The word We is powerful, and it helps make a team feel a sense of ownership, instead of burden. 

You can listen in on a few conversations, status meetings, boardwalks or scrums, and get a feel for this metric. I've noticed that Kanban as a productivity management technique is more conducive to a high We to I ratio than Agile/Scrum, because the focus is on the work that needs to be done over the individual doing it. 

If you use Slack, Hipchat or IRC, you can run a quick analysis on your per-team channels. Check how many times people say We, and how often they say I. Check the concordance of "We" and "I" with Python's NLTK library(, which will show you the words that appear around the words you search for. Notice how often you see defensiveness around the word I, rather than empowerment. 

All in all, this is a trailing indicator of how your team interacts, and how healthy your culture is. It's a subtle distinction to notice, but once you know it's there you can't un-see it. It's a great indicator for per-team cohesiveness, and if you do periodic checks, you can proactively address breakdowns in communication before they occur. 

I do consulting for engineering process, management, and culture. I mostly work with companies in the process of growing from startup to mid-size company, and help keep them from losing their soul in the process. I also help with issues around diversity, including neurodiversity. Email me if you want to know more.