• Big Data & Technology
  • Peter Waterhouse
  • NOV 27, 2019

Five Tips for Building a Winning DevOps Culture

Despite our cognitive prowess, humans are just like other animal in the food chain. We follow patterns of behavior based on survival. If food is safe to eat today, we’ll eat it tomorrow. If we can navigate a road without getting hurt, we’ll do it again and again.

This explains why change is so hard. Evolutionary magic has taught us to avoid stuff that could harm or kill us – in life and even in business.

But the business jungle is changing faster and far more radically than ever before. The pace and ubiquity of technology has resulted in once sturdy business models being brutally felled. Now we must move out of our comfort zones – or get eaten alive.

Businesses now require regular and sustained innovation, but this is problematic for many organizations more used to operating in safe mode. For them, fear of change reigns supreme – even when the company is losing market share and talent is leaving in droves.

The situation is recoverable when leadership commits to building culture of innovation. This is especially important in IT, because it’s here where innovation now starts and ends. To this end, organizations are rushing to embrace Agile and DevOps – the practices of choice for rapidly delivering high quality software.

But when it comes to culture nothing is easy.  Here are five tips to help ensure success:

  1. Avoid Building Elitist DevOps Teams – the natural tendency with any new initiative is to build out a separate team. This means bringing in outside experts, cherry picking what’s seen as the best internal talent across development and operations, and then operating distinctly from the rest of IT.

It must be remembered that DevOps isn’t a function, but a model in which development and operations collaborate. Therefore building a separate team is just creating another silo, which because of the “elitist” association could create even more friction.

DevOps teams can valuable during early stages of a program, but only then as a transitional practice. In these case members of the team are chartered to spread knowledge; building the bridges across the organization and then disbanding once practices start to take hold.

  1. Cull Elitists and Destructive Narcissists – a strong DevOps culture is based on collaboration and empathy; sharing success and learning from failures. If, however, initiatives are led by individuals who strive for personal glory and kudos at the expense of everything – especially staff morale and wellbeing, then there’s a problem.

Doubly difficult is the fact that people in this category are energetic extroverts; appearing ideally suited to spearheading important cultural change initiatives. But remember this – energy doesn’t always equal intelligence, so seek out the big thinkers over the big talkers. They’re just as likely to be introverts, only netter equipped with the intellectual persistence and the emotional smarts needed to help build a thriving culture.

  1. Reward Wishful Thinking and Craziness – ever wondered where great business ideas from the likes of AirBnB came from? Probably from folks challenging the status quo by creating problems customers didn’t know they had (and then solving them with software)– like – what if we could take that wasteful spare room you have and turn it into a cash generating mini-hotel?

In a DevOps context, we can use a similar approach. Looking at the ways processes are being conducted and then suggesting counterintuitive alternatives. For example, what if our change management process is completely wrong – can we find ways improve automation for agile development? Why should we wait for production monitoring – what if we build it during coding and testing to increase resilience?

In a strong DevOps culture suggesting ideas is openly encouraged and rewarded. Without it, great ideas get lost or unnoticed, or worse, get belittled and smashed by those elitists and narcissists.

  1. Have a Healthier Respect for Failure – if you want to kill DevOps before starting, go ahead and talk up past failures – like – “We tried agile five year ago and it was a train wreck –DevOps will be no different!” Glass half-empty thinking like this is detrimental because it put the brakes on talking risks and exploring a profitable digital future.

Nobody likes talking about failure, but the key to making progress with DevOps is to accept that mistakes happen all the time. What’s key is treating every fail or screw-up as a learning point. That way we stop talking about things that didn’t work before, and start describing them as lessons which help build a brighter future.

Taking the fear out of failure needs a lot of executive support. Management should begin a parallel process of rewarding sensible risk taking and removing any structures and incentives that stifle innovative thinking.

  1. Walk the People and Process Pipeline – even with great tools, DevOps won’t deliver anything if sub-optimal processes or organizational friction persist. In most cases defects and delays can be put down to people enforcing rigid policies or relying on manual and error prone handoffs.

One good practice taken from the world of manufacturing is taking a “value walk” across your own software factory. This involves spending time interacting with people as they conduct their jobs (develop, test, release etc.) – not to point fault, but to understand any situational stresses that increase waste and technical debt, and could be remedied from automation.

Carving out opportunities from the digital chaos and disruption is the perfect place for DevOps. But don’t get carried away – change is hard.  Make sure you have the right leadership, practitioners and counterintuitive thinking needed to start your transformation journey– and keeps everyone onboard.

The Harvard Innovation Lab

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The Harvard Innovation Lab


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