Out of the gate, I want you all to know that I’m not a tech expert. I’m happy that I’m able to navigate the typical business software and email on my laptop to get through my workweek.
That said, at the Seattle Interactive Conference a couple of months ago, I attended a presentation by Lucas Welch, Director of Communications at Chef, a Seattle-based tech firm that provides an IT automation platform to brands such as Target, Nordstrom and Facebook. Lucas’ presentation was on the topic of “DevOps.”
I enjoy attending conferences that are outside of my area of expertise namely because they help me to expand my thinking. With Seattle’s tech boom in full swing, the SIC event was something that offered the opportunity to understand more about tech subcultures and how tech companies are evolving in a rapidly changing business environment. What I didn’t expect was to learn about an entire tech movement whose success rides squarely on a topic I do happen to know a lot about: organizational culture.
What Does DevOps Have To Do With Culture?
DevOps began as a software development method meant to drive increased velocity in the building, testing and release of software by getting two groups—Developers (Dev) and Operations (Ops) to work together more effectively.
If your life doesn’t revolve around servers, app development or software reliability, you’re probably scratching your head right now wondering, “What the heck does this have to do with me?” I’m going to tell you.
I had a chance to catch up with Lucas Welch at the Chef offices recently to pick his brain a bit on role that culture plays in the successful transition to and sustainment of DevOps practices within tech organizations.
Welch defines DevOps as “a cultural and professional movement, focused on how we build and operate high velocity organizations, born from the experiences of its practitioners.”
He explains that in order to succeed in a DevOps environment, tech companies must provide a safe environment, access to knowledge when people need it, and freedom. Team members must be empowered to ask, speak or think without hindrance or restraint, so they can act quickly.
If done well, this kind of collaboration between teams engages and empowers members with a sense of purpose, a shared set of values and beliefs, and aligned leadership.
Unfortunately, integrating two teams with two different subcultures is easier said than done. According to Gartner, 75% of enterprise IT departments will have tried to create a bimodal capacity by 2018. But, less than 50% of them will reap the benefits that new software development methodologies like DevOps promise.
Ian Head, Research Director at Gartner, estimates that “by 2018, 90 percent of I&O organizations attempting to use DevOps without specifically addressing their cultural foundations will fail.”
In many ways, the DevOps discussion seems to be a tech version of concepts and research that has been going on in other industries for a long time under different names. This, however, doesn’t discount the importance of the DevOps movement. Tech companies are beginning to understand that a focus on collaboration between two different sides of their business produces better results. That’s always a good thing.
The challenge is that, while some DevOps discussions acknowledge that a culture change is required to realize these performance improvements, the focus tends to be on the technical aspects of the philosophy rather than the cultural aspects.
Cultural Considerations For DevOps
Here are a few considerations to help more successfully integrate this way of working into your organization:
Create space for people to come together to dialogue. Asking people to operate in fundamentally new ways can, unsurprisingly, create anxiety and resistance. Ensuring that those affected by a DevOps implementation have multiple opportunities to engage with each other in a safe environment to understand the intent of such changes, to help clarify roles, responsibilities and interdependencies can all help set a solid foundation for this type of transition.
Provide support to your leaders. Assuming that leaders innately have the knowledge, skills, abilities and tools required to lead a transition to a DevOps environment can really hamper your efforts before they even get started. Leaders are a critical stakeholder in a DevOps transition. Unfortunately, they are often the last factor that’s taken into consideration in terms of providing support.
Actively engage stakeholders in the redefinition of work. In some ways, DevOps requires key groups to redefine the beliefs and assumptions that they’ve created over time in terms of how work gets done. By allowing these stakeholders to help co-create the future, you can help people feel that they are a part of the change as opposed to feeling that something is being done to them.
Acknowledge that mistakes will happen. Think about it. You’re asking people with well-established professional identities to rethink how they collaborate toward a common goal. No matter how much you prepare there are going to be hiccups. There are going to be snags. How you react as a leader to these situations will have a direct and immediate impact on people’s’ behavior moving forward. Dropping the hammer on people will cause them to immediately revert to their old ways of operating. Use mistakes as teachable moments and acknowledge that these are a part and parcel with working in new ways.
There’s a big difference between skepticism and cynicism. It’s okay for people to be skeptical when presented with operating in this new way. For years, they have built up beliefs and assumptions about how to do their work and interact with other stakeholders. Being skeptical is common. Over time, as these skeptics see that the new DepOps way of working can yield great benefits, they will begin to adopt a new attitude towards it. As Jamie Hale put it in his article published in World of Psychology, Cynics (as opposed to skeptics)… are a different story altogether. Cynics do not accept any claim that challenges their belief system. As cynics attempt to push against new ways of thinking that opposed their beliefs they can behave in ways that bring others down. This type of behavior can be fatal for a DevOps transition.
It takes time and shared experience for a new DevOps culture to embed itself. Over time, skeptics will begin to see the results of the DevOps approach. They will begin to align with others in the organization to develop a new set of beliefs and assumptions about what “right looks like”. Truly embedding a DevOps culture into an organization will only happen as the members of the collective have shared experiences that support the new way. Ultimately, you know that the transition has been successful when an outsider asks someone why they do things the DevOps way, and the response they get is, “Well, why wouldn’t we do it that way?”
DevOps, at its core, is about teamwork and collaboration. As Mr. Welch explained, “DevOps is evolving from a cultural and professional movement into a mainstream operating model where every segment of the business collaborates on delivering customer value through software.”
It’s a fundamentally different way of working that requires careful attention to human and cultural dynamics, and cannot simply be implemented with tools. Being intentional about the human and cultural aspects of a DevOps transition, as well as the infrastructure components, can help expedite this new way of working. It will help your team perform by reducing anxiety and facilitating their mental shift to this new way of doing things.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.
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