The culture conundrum : To succeed with Agile and DevOps transformation, you need to get the culture right.

One of the key success factors in Agile and DevOps transformation is the culture of the teams and the organization. However, since culture is intangible it is difficult to get a sense of whether you are getting culture right or wrong. So, instead of getting caught up prematurely in the minutiae of how to get culture right, let us zero in on what success look like for any organizations that has successfully transformed itself from the current way of working to the Agile & DevOps way of working.

And to do that – look at what success looks like after transformation –  we turn to the highly acclaimed book – Lean Enterprise, How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale, By Jez Humble, Barry O’Rielly, Joanne Molesky – a must have reference book for anybody involved in Agile & DevOps transformation. ( By the way, Lean underpins both Agile & DevOps movements, and Agile and DevOps can be considered as a specific application of Lean in the IT context – the development, delivery, and operations of software products. )

In the book Lean Enterprise, the authors state ” The key to creating a lean enterprise is to enable those doing the work to solve their customers’ problems in a way that is aligned with the strategy of the wider organization. To achieve this, we rely on people being able to make local decisions that are sound at a strategic level which, in turn, relies critically on the flow of information, including feedback loops.”¹

¹Lean Enterprise, How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. by: Jez Humble, Barry O’Reilly, Joanne Molesky, Chapter 1 Introduction, Section : A Lean Enterprise is Primarily a Human System

The flow of information has been studied extensively by sociologist Ron Westrum in the context of safety in the medical field, and to quote him

” Because information flow is both influential and also indicative of other aspects of culture, it can be used to predict how organizations or parts of them will behave when trouble arises.”²

² A typology of organizational cultures, Ron Westrum

With the information flow as a proxy for team and organizational culture, we can then use it to understand the type of information flow we currently have, and the target information flow we want  to achieve, and how we get to the target state – the technical and management practices that will get us to target state. The genius of the Lean Enterprise authors as well as the folks at DORA ( DevOps research and assessment) –  in 2014 DORA validated and operationalized Ron Westrum’s model of organizational culture – is that they have extrapolated Ron Westrum extensive study of organizational culture and information flow to the IT context, thus saving us from the fraught responsibility of coming with a cultural model suitable for the Agile & DevOps way of working. Ron Westrum defines the following three organizational types

Pathological organizations are characterized by large amounts of fear and threat. People often hoard information or withhold it for political reasons, or distort it to make themselves look better.

Bureaucratic organizations protect departments. Those in the department want to maintain their “turf,” insist on their own rules, and generally do things by the book—their book.

Generative organizations focus on the mission. How do we accomplish our goal? Everything is subordinated to good performance, to doing what we are supposed to do.³

³Lean Enterprise, How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scala. by: Jez Humble, Barry O’Reilly, Joanne Molesky, Chapter 1 Introduction, Section : A Lean Enterprise is Primarily a Human System

and the way they process information.

HowOrganizationsProcessInformation_1Lean Enterprise, How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. by: Jez Humble, Barry O’Reilly, Joanne Molesky, Chapter 1 Introduction, Section : A Lean Enterprise is Primarily a Human System

So, if the target state of Agile & DevOps transformation is to get IT teams to make ” local decisions that are sound at the strategic level” , we need to move from our current state culture to the target state culture – performance oriented culture. And since culture follows structure, we need to redefine the way IT teams are structured as one of the initial steps in creating the right culture.

Historically IT teams have been organized based on functional specialization and as a consequence the default culture is bureaucratic and rule oriented. In fact, the rai·son d’ê·tre as well as the rallying cry of the DevOps movement  was to breakdown the bureaucratic wall between Dev and Ops. Although more recently, teams and organizations  have adopted agile development practices, which similar to DevOps call for breaking down of barriers between technical functions and  the creation of fully independent teams, which would imply that we are finally moving  away from the default bureaucratic culture to a high performance culture. Unfortunately, the reality is disappointingly different, even among organizations that have adopted Agile software development. With project conversations replete with phrases like Dev complete, QA complete and with software releases into production still being a nightmare, the siloed bureaucratic culture still persists. It almost appears that we are headed to the dreaded dé·jà vu of “Agile” development teams handing off stuff to “DevOps” operations teams to deploy and operate software in production, which defeats the main purpose of the transformation initiatives – to build a high performance culture.

So, to actually get to the target state of a performance oriented culture, the structure of IT teams will have to change from  the current functional based team structure to product based team structure. This doesn’t mean a massive reorganization has to  happen – the functional departments remain, instead each IT product has it own autonomous, multi-skilled team that has all the skills needed to manage the IT product and service  from end to end – design, develop, deploy and operate. This is the type of product based team structure that Amazon popularized as ” You build it, You run it” teams.

The practical manifestation of this high performance, “You build it, You run it” culture is illustrated below

CoreOfDevOpsCutture_1

Reference : DevOps fundamentals course book, Page 60, Core of DevOps culture

And to help organizations transition from the current way of doing IT to the Agile & DevOps way of doing IT, DevOps Agile Skills Association, provides through its competence model the skills and knowledge teams require to become fully autonomous high performance teams. Here is a synopsis of knowledge areas  “You build it, You run it” teams require  – Architecture and design, Business value optimization, Business Analysis, Test Specification, Programming, continuous Delivery, Security, Risk, compliance, Infrastructure Engineering. ( Note: You could start by taking the competence quick scan to assess the current state of knowledge and skills of your teams and use it to build a target state road map)

The key take aways then

  •  Agile & DevOps transformation should result in ” teams being able  to make local decisions that are strategically sound.” ( As a corollary you should  do the transition to Agile & DevOps way of working as one transformation initiative)
  • Culture follows structure – to move from bureaucratic to performance oriented culture move from functional team structure to product based team structure
  • You build it, you run it – Guidance on how you set up highly, autonomous cross functional  product teams available at DASA and covered extensively in DASA’s DevOps fundamentals course or reach out to me.

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