How to lead in today’s disruptive dysfunctional world

Take a look at the world around us, what do you see? Dysfunction all around. Constant Change. Perpetual disruption.

Let me share with you what I see:

  • Over 90% of Digital Transformations failing according to 2018 DevOps State of the Union report
  • Projects  failing at a rate of 60 to 90%  depending upon which survey or article you want to reference
  • 94% of Agile adoptions failing according to the 11th Annual State of Agile Report in 2017
  • People leaving their jobs because of work. Be it because the job wasn’t enjoyable, their strengths were not being used or they didn’t feel like they were progressing in their careers, they had enough. Harvard Business Review’s article titled “Why people really quit their jobs” is very revealing on this point.

When looking for the root cause or asking the question “why” we are failing. The answer can be summarized in three words: culture, leadership, and communication.



Culture is the biggest culprit and largest in size from a holistic or across the organization perspective. Culture is the value and belief set which supports the behaviors by which the organization operates.  The bottom line is that the organization has to get rid of their current value and belief set, and adopt a set of values and beliefs which will change the internal behaviors, to enable the organization to survive and compete in today’s dynamic, disruptive, and dysfunctional world. These values are:

  1. Be customer focused
  2. Organize into a set of interconnected autonomous teams
  3. Empower the autonomous teams to make decisions and navigate the direction the organization takes with is customers, partners and vendors
    • I call this the “tip of the spear”

An article in Forbes titled “Understanding The Agile Mindset” provides one of the most concise tables, shown below, which summarizes and illustrates these three culture points:


Further support  to these culture points, and aligned with the Forbes’ article are DASA standards which are based on this updated and evolved way of thinking, providing guidance and awareness for how to evolve. Below is a portion of a table that can be found in the DASA DevOps Fundamentals guide which breaks down the culture points into greater detail. The complete table illustrates the differences between current state (Central Command) and future state (Mission Command). More on DASA’s two leadership references later in this article.


Take a closer look at the three culture values shown in the Forbes’ article. You will see that being customer focused is a major change from being a value driven shareholder.  How many of us have heard in our MBA programs and been told for many years that the organization’s leadership needs to drive and make decisions based on shareholder value? For myself, this has been the case for over a decade.  However, if we change our perspective and focus on serving our customer who is providing us our revenue stream, what happens? Our relationship with our customer becomes a greater valued partnership whereby if we do a good job, our customer will see us as their trusted advisor or trusted agent, and we will have the opportunity to be next to them, step by step to help grow their business. The sales, sales engineers, customer support, customer facing project managers, scrum masters and those interacting with the customer are the “tip of the spear”.Our people at the tip of the spear will provide requirements, insight and information back to our organization for how our organization can better support the customer, gain further trust and operational responsibility with the customer. The impact of this is that our people, processes and tools become optimized and streamlined for our desire to be effective and efficient at delivering value to the customer. The result is that our operations and our customer operations will begin to merge together and the meaning of E2E (End To End) gets expanded from our company’s boundaries to mean our organization, plus our customer’s organization, plus their supporting organizations become intertwined and expanded into a seamless E2E across the customer’s services and support eco-system. The byproduct of achieving this level of efficiency and effectiveness partnering with our customer to provide customer value is a rise in shareholder value.

The caveat in this scenario is that internally, within our own organization, we have to be focused in all aspects on providing value to the customer. There is no room for political or personal agendas consuming people, time, money, decision making, power, or other resources which should be focused on providing services, products, and support to the customer. In this new world “Transparency” reigns king and becomes the spotlight which will illuminate the entrenched transaction based power brokers, those who are about themselves or their own agenda. The question for organizations becomes whether they are going to condone thinking and behavior of those not focused on the customer who are taking away shareholder value and profitability due to their actions. The challenge becomes the fact that in today’s world, the baby boomer generation who are mostly transaction leadership or values based, sits in the seat of power for a majority of today’s organizations. In 2015, according to the US labor bureau, the Millennials became the largest demographic in our workforce. The Millennials are Transformational leadership and values based. Transactional and Transformational values and beliefs are opposing like water and oil, they do not mix. The reality of this situation is that the ability for organizations to evolve is really sitting inside those who are currently in power making decisions. Those in power and the decision makers are the ones who have to evolve to become opposite what they are today, in order for their organization’s culture to change.


A good example of how an organization’s culture can change is to look at the decision making paradigm. Today, most organizations have a hierarchy structure and those in positions in the hierarchy make decisions based on information passed up to them by others. This information in almost all cases is filtered, consciously or unconsciously biased by those who have collected and prepared the data. In addition, there have been policies put in place to define who has authority to make which decisions. It is not uncommon for the customer to hear in a conversation from their service provider; “I need to check our policy or refer to the contract to see if we can do that”.  Moving forward, the organization has to identify where is the tip of their spear, meaning; “Who is front and center with the customer?”. Typically there is a team of people such as an account representative, senior director, project managers, scrum masters and support lead. This team of people should now be the decision makers. In addition, the many existing policies telling the teams what they can or cannot due for decision making are replaced with a single new simple policy which states; “Do what it takes to support our customer”. With our team empowered with its updated policy, the customer’s experience will be totally different. Our person facing off to the customer will now say; “That is an interesting idea, help me understand what you need and more importantly, why are you asking for this?”. At that point our team at the tip of the spear gathers that information, brings it back to the organization, and the internal teams figure out the best way to support the customer.  The internal teams are also empowered to make decisions for updating their internal ways of working, evolving their people, processes and procedures.

The result of evolving in this manner actually highlights one of the key actions an organization has to do which is to flatten its organizational structure and get rid of its hierarchy. Working by the customer as outlined above, a hierarchy is not needed.  Flattening the organizational structure helps eliminate costs, speeds up decision making, reduces the ability for entrenched transaction based power brokers to create centers of self-serving power. Every role and responsibility of the organization needs to be tied to productively supporting the customer, delivering customer value.

DevOps culture

One example could be your product or services development department. Typically this department has a research and development team, requirements gathering team, product/service owners, ties into product marketing team, ties into the sales team, ties into the support team, and some internal overhead for managing and leading the various teams. The common practice is to gather ideas, create some prototypes, and provide demo’s to share with the market or customers for feedback. The feedback is reviewed analyzed, and a product/service steering committee will make a decision of yes/no for going to market with the product/service. Moving forward, you have a cross functional team as stated above, meeting with your customer on a daily basis. The customer provides a request or idea, this team brings the idea back to the scrum team which breaks this request into an Epic with User Stories which is put into the backlog;  The product owner, who is part of the scrum team, brings these new requests to the product/service steering committee for review of how this can be done. It is important to note we did not say make a “go/no go” decision. We are asking our internal teams, “how can this request be done” then we say “how this can be done”; we are focused on the “why” – “why did the customer ask for this”, “why does the customer need this”. The key here is that the customer may be asking for the ability to change a setting or add a new control, but why? There are times where adding the ability to change a setting or add a control will actually cause downstream issues or complications such as meeting compliance audits.If the customer’s machine operator can set machine tolerances out of specification, how does the customer prove to the auditor that their machine was within specification or compliant the whole time it was operating? Maybe the better course of action is to provide the customer with enhanced monitoring of the machine so that we can better predict that a setting needs to be changed when there is a variance in the materials used at that time in the production process.

For the previous example, we dove into the details to demonstrate a real world example that occurred a few months prior to the writing of this article, how the decision making was done within the internal engineering scrum team and customer facing cross functional team. There was no one needed from a hierarchy perspective to make these decisions. This example showcases culture value two of the table provided by Forbes where an organization needs to have a networked organizational structure, not a hierarchy. These teams have to be networked to provide feedback to the steering committees for oversight to maintain alignment and synergy of the product / service roadmaps to maintain the big picture. The hierarchy is transformed into a second layer of networked teams, focusing on the trends coming from the various customers, synthesizing the “whys” into a common vision for the path forward.

So the real question an organization has to ask itself is why do I need all of this product/service overhead? By focusing and listening to “why” your customers are asking for things, you are getting the best input for steering your products and services.  A great example of rethinking your product and service culture is to take a look at GE’s “Thrust As A Service or Rolls Royce’s Power By The Hour” offerings. These two companies evolved to compete effectively and synergize their operations with profitability. Bottom line is that they have evolved from making airplane engines and selling them to plane manufacturers, to selling “thrust” or “power”.



Returning to our initial reflection on “why” we are failing, after culture there is communication.

Simply stated, communication is a process. There are so many steps that go into the process of communication which are unique and dependent upon the individual it becomes very easy to see why it is so hard to communicate. This is why, you will see in the DASA Standards that “vision” is how we lead. A quote from DASA DevOpsFundamentals: “mission command is to lead a team through vision and empowerment.” In addition, throughout the DASA DevOps Fundamentals there are references to tools based on vision like the “product vision board”.  So why is there such a big emphasis or focus on vision? Because vision is the primary way we communicate. There are many studies which have found that a range of 80 to 90% of our communication is non-verbal. Have you heard the common saying “a picture is worth a thousand words?” By communicating through vision we are engaging the left or creative side of our brain. So how do we communicate by vision? Through the use of vision documents.

For your organization, department, team, product or service, create a visual illustration of the objective or goal and call it the future state. This vision document of the future state becomes the focus point when communicating. When looking at the vision doc ask the question; “Do the people, process, tools/technology, mindset, and culture in place today support making this vision a reality?”  The common answer is no, in which case you and your team now have a starting point for what needs to be evolved in order to transform your idea into reality (TYIIR). By using the vision documents as a way of communicating, your organization will achieve a much more focused and effective communication than what you are experiencing today.



Returning to our initial reflection on “why”, the remaining reason “why” we are failing is leadership. In the DASA standards, reference is made to “mission command” which aligns to Transformational leadership and “central command” aligns to Transactional Leadership. Referring to the previous DASA DevOps Fundamentals quote “mission command is to lead a team through vision and empowerment”. Notice there are two key words: “vision” and “empowering”.

Let me ask you: “What is the only leadership style which is based on vision and has empowering as one of its core values and beliefs?”  The answer is Transformational Leadership. Transformational Leadership has 4 elements which are all about and based on working from a common vision.


McShane, Steve & Glinow, Mary Ann 2005, Organizational Behavior: Emerging Realities for the Workplace Revolution, 3e, The McGraw-Hill Companies

The values and belief set of a Transformational Leader is based on transforming  vision into reality. If you take a step back and reflect on these 4 elements, you can see they form a process for leadership. You define, communicate, model and build commitment making the vision a reality. By following this leadership process you will be persistent and consistent in how you lead as you focus on the vision. Notice we say vision and not what you as an individual want, or your pride and ego. You can leave or check your pride and ego outside the door as you walk into the room to support and serve your team.

This leads to a critical value and belief, what some have called “servant’s leadership”. I consider John Maxwell as the one, who by listening to his teachings, founded my understanding of what it means to have a “servant’s heart”. Reflecting on these four elements, there is no other leadership style which has a built in process which mitigates 80 to 90% of transformations and project’s root cause failures. Think of it this way: leading by transformational leadership, you are automatically mitigating 80 to 90% of the risks which cause project failure. Now, how cool is that!

Being a Transformational Leader is all about facilitating, empowering, communicating, serving, being humble, and having the courage to be a change agent while setting your teammates up for success, transforming the vision into reality. As we stated earlier, most organizations are currently led by a transaction based baby boomer which will be directly opposed to how you lead, and how the largest demographic of the workforce, Millennials, work from a transformational mindset, values and beliefs. This is why the term “change agent” comes into play. As a transformational leader, you become that change agent and will be the leader of a subculture which is transformational based. This is one of many examples why culture is the number one reason why 94% of digital transformations are failing. You as a transformational leader, defining Agile and DevOps (dynamic) people, process, and tools have a transformational mindset and think differently than the organization which currently has transactional (static) people, process and tools using waterfall methods. In order for you to be an effective leader, the organization’s culture needs to support your transformational mindset and dynamic ways of working. Unfortunately, today, most organizations are failing in their struggles to deal with this change, hence the transformations, projects, products, and services failing.

Let’s circle back to the millennials being the highest demographic in our workforce today. If you look at the younger generations, they too are also Transformational in their values and beliefs, dynamic in how they think and work. Therefore, by being a Transformational Leader, your behavior aligns to how the younger generations want to be treated. You listen to them, allow them to communicate their ideas, empower them, you serve, support and set them up for success. You allow them to apply themselves towards their work in a manner they believe they can be successful. They are in charge of their gaining value in their work. As a transformational leader you have mitigated the risks and issues of not being able to retain top talent by which leaders using other methods are experiencing. You are able to retain your top talent and innovation comes forward from your team. When it comes to having multiple generations working with you, it is simple. We all focus on making the vision a reality and let the team itself figure out how they will work together. I have seen baby boomers primarily communicate by email or text. I have seen millennials primarily communicate by meetings or a phone call which goes against their generation’s norm. The bottom line is that they are focused on working together, to support one another, on how they as a team are going to transform the vision into reality.

Closely aligned in concept to the multigenerational workforce is the disruption caused by technology and dynamic methods such as Agile and DevOps. These disruptions are the result of the dynamic mindset and way of working, clashing with the existing static mindset and way of working. As a transformational leader, your value belief set align to the 4 core values of Agile stated in the Agile manifesto, and the 4 key elements of DevOps stated in DASA DevOps Fundamentals, “How you think and work aligns to what needs to happen?” This is where the term “change agent” comes into play again, as you lead the evolution of static to dynamic.

Ending notes

Reflecting on this article, some of you may be thinking this is a lot, others may be thinking we are just scratching the surface. To be the best transformation leader you can be, you have to take on the value and belief set of a Transformational Leader while empowering and serving others from a servant’s heart, setting your people and team up for success. My hope is that you take on this personal and internal evolution. In addition, I hope your organization takes on this evolution so that you are supported for success.

Currently I am working with the leaders of some of the world’s most prominent organizations, with educational and standards organizations as well as entrepreneurs. The common thread to those being successful is that the individuals and their organization have had to figure out their transformational identity, their transformational value and belief set, and then “evolve.”

Good luck on your journey! DASA, our team, and myself are here to help, let the transformation journey begin.

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John Ruppel

Transformation Leader / Officer, TYIIR Institute, LLC

John Ruppel is a Transformation Leader / Officer who has been ‘Transforming Your Ideas Into Reality’ (TYIIR) for the world’s leading individuals, organizations and governments….