Characteristics of a Strong Performance Culture


During Katie and Addy’s Google I/O talk, they referred to an internal study that found that 40% of large brands regress on web performance within 6 months.

That’s a large, discouraging number, but it’s not entirely surprising. In my experience, teams want to build fast sites. When given the opportunity, like a large organizational push, they relish it and can make tremendous progress.

However, these concerted efforts often fix the symptoms without dealing with the underlying cause. A detailed, prioritized audit of a site’s performance provides clear direction on which optimizations to tackle, but unless you also deal with the organizational constraints that caused the site to perform slowly in the first place, those seconds will keep coming back over time.

That’s why so many folks over the years have stressed the importance of fostering a culture of performance inside of organizations. I think few organizations would argue against doing just that, but the path forward isn’t always clear, and it’s far from easy. Fixing the symptoms is much easier than fixing the cause.

Characteristics of a strong performance culture

It’s always easier to get somewhere when you know where you’re going. (Says the person with zero navigational skills.) I’ve been lucky enough to work with organizations who have built up that culture, as well as learn from people inside of other organizations that have successfully navigated that journey. As I was thinking back to those conversations, articles, and presentations, I tried to identify down the common characteristics of an organization with a good performance culture.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but every organization I’ve worked with and talked to that seems to have a good handle on performance has these traits in common:

  1. Top-down support
  2. Data-driven
  3. Clear targets
  4. Automation
  5. Knowledge sharing
  6. Culture of experimentation
  7. User focused, not tool focused

Top-down support

This is a big one. A huge one. If you don’t have the top-down support, you are very, very unlikely to get the resources needed to establish a culture of performance for the long haul.

To be clear, if you don’t have this right now, that doesn’t mean you throw up your hands in despair. Few companies start with top-down support. More frequently, it’s something that has to be established through the hard work of others in the organization, taking steps to make improvements and sell their organization on the value of investing in performance.


Companies with good cultures of performance use data to support their efforts. They carefully monitor the impact of their optimizations on raw performance metrics, but also user-focused and business metrics.

They’ve invested (whether financially in an external tool, or with resources for an internal tool) in robust performance monitoring. They use both RUM and synthetic tools where appropriate, and they know what metrics they’re trying to target.

Clear targets

A performance budget by itself won’t solve all your problems, but you’re not going to get very far if you don’t have very clearly defined budgets in place. Whether they call it a budget or not, companies that have a strong performance culture typically have clear performance goals that drive their work.


Companies with strong cultures of performance understand that performance has to be baked-in for it to stick, and they use automation to help lay the groundwork for their performance efforts.

They have steps in their build processes to take care of a lot of the low-hanging performance fruit by default.

They have tools in place to test for changes in performance automatically. These tools can be third-party or homegrown. In some cases, they break they build; in others they’re part of the review process. But they’re there, proactively identifying potential performance hiccups.

Knowledge sharing

It doesn’t matter if you have a dedicated performance team or not: if knowledge about optimizations, metrics, and monitoring is locked up within a few individuals or even one team, you’re unlikely to achieve sustainable success. Companies with strong performance cultures find ways to share knowledge across teams through training, lunch-and-learns, performance champions, documentation, and more.

Going a step further, they encourage sharing by finding ways to celebrate and recognize teams and individuals who make meaningful performance improvements.

Culture of experimentation

A lot of performance work relies on experimentation. You think an optimization is going to provide meaningful returns for the business, but that doesn’t always play out in practice.

It’s essential to foster a culture where experimentation is encouraged. Optimizations get applied and tested to see their impact both on performance and on key business metrics.

This means that, frequently, these optimizations get rolled out slowly—first to a fraction of the people visiting a site and then, assuming the impact is positive, to the entire user base. It’s always exciting to make a big performance improvement and, if you’re like me, you can’t wait to get it shipped. Sometimes, though, you have to slow down to win the race.

User focused, not tool focused

You’ll notice that none of the characteristics above prescribe a specific tool or framework. In fact, only automation could be described as tool-centric. Every other characteristic is much more about the people and the processes. That’s because companies with strong cultures of performance put their focus on the user, not on specific tools.

I’ve seen companies achieve success using everything from PHP and jQuery driven sites to Node and the latest JS framework. I’ve seen them use SpeedCurve, Calibre, Sitespeed, WebPageTest and mPulse. I’ve seen them run Webpack, Phing, Grunt, Gulp, npm scripts and any of a number of different build processes.

They’re not afraid of tools, but they’re critical of them. They recognize that tools are there to support the culture, not dominate it.

One step at a time

Few companies carry all of these characteristics, so it’s important not to get discouraged if you feel you’re missing a few of them. It’s a process and not a quick one. When I’ve asked folks at companies with all or most of these characteristics how long it took them to get to that point, the answer is typically in years, rarely months. Making meaningful changes to culture is much slower and far more difficult than making technical changes, but absolutely critical if you want those technical changes to have the impact you’re hoping for.

They also all, unanimously, express that they understand there’s so much more work to be done. Getting that strong web performance culture in place isn’t a destination, but a constant revolving wheel of mistakes and improvements.

As I mentioned before, it’s quite possible I’ve overlooked some traits. But if you’re trying to build up a stronger focus on performance in your organization, focusing on improving on each of these characteristics is going to get you much farther than an audit alone.