Leveraging Stories to Drive DevOps Culture

“We tell stories to feel at home in the Universe”
– Roger Bingham, British science communicator, writer, and public television producer and host

I perfectly recollect the moment I joined my first organization after finishing my MBA, way back in the early nineties. I was casually informed about an employee who fudged his travel expense statement for mere five Indian rupees (“who would risk one’s job for such a small amount?”) and was sacked immediately, once the unethical act was confirmed. I remember the message sinking into my mind causing seismic shifts in my perspective on ethics.

“Five Indian Rupees? Is that the level of intolerance that this company has to unethical acts?”….. The story was told with an air of finality and the message was incisive: The actual amount is inconsequential, and all that matters is the intention.

Adding to this, I was hearing other stories of ethical acts being rewarded suitably, loyalty being promoted regularly and honesty being highlighted with the promise of a secure job. Overall, I felt proud that I was working in an organization that had such powerful ‘non-negotiables’ when it came to ethics.

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A few months later, I was looking for that person who had been sacked. No one could recollect the person as ‘there had been many such people’ and due to the fact ‘that’s the way things happen here’. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was an apocryphal story humanizing the overall approach of the company towards ethics.

Many years later, when applying the power of storytelling in helping new joiners to align with the culture of an organization, I remembered this incident. In one stroke, this story aligned me to the company culture, with pride and a sense of achievement. When deepening a culture, stories truly bring it alive. Stories pull out the culture from abstruse beliefs to a real-life context, of ‘what will happen when this culture is in effect’.

A leader who understands the power of stories can leverage them to transform culture very swiftly. In the context of a DevOps culture transformation, the leader has a unique challenge. He/ she is moving from an old, traditional culture to the new world of DevOps. He may not have stories to flesh out the context. In such cases, the leader has to drive the specific agenda to build stories, which can be used to fuel the culture change.

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How is that done? There are some key steps that can be taken that have worked very effectively:

  1. Role model and narrate stories of experiences with oneself: The first step to drive Culture is for the leaders to role model. The rest of the organization is ‘watching’ the leaders to learn what is required to ‘survive and thrive’ in this organization. So the new behaviors need to be role modeled. As the leader role models, he has to build stories that showcase how the new behavior can benefit him and the organization. For example, if the new DevOps Culture is to take more frequent feedback, the leader will narrate stories of how he took frequent feedback on the project, which helped to improve productivity.
  2. Identify champions or ‘early adopters’: The leader has already communicated the new beliefs and behaviors. He wants people to accept new beliefs and engage in the new behavior. All of them will not start doing it right away. There will be a few who will be more inclined to engage in the same. These people have to be identified and supported. As they engage in the new behavior, stories about their success should start doing the rounds, encouraging others to follow. A DevOps culture requires continuous improvement, which means more engagement between Development and Operations, transparency, brainstorming, conflict resolutions, and faster decision making to improve the product. A team that is engaging in the identified behaviors would be shifting into the new culture. This would be the first ‘tentative steps’ in the organization. If these initial steps are validated by powerful stories of success, the impact will cascade to other teams who will more readily adopt the new behavior.
  3. Incorporate stakeholder feedback: Stories about experiences of clients (external stakeholders) or other functions (internal stakeholders) also precipitate new behavior. A client sharing a great story of success due to new behavior can be a huge fillip within the organization. These stories very powerfully validate the new culture and prompt others to quickly adopt it. Sometimes, the lagging employees even become anxious about being stuck with old behavior, as they become afraid of being ‘left behind’. Such can be the power of stakeholder validation.
  4. Emphasis on the ‘you can do it’ message: Stories talk about the ‘benefits that will come to you’ if you engage in the new behaviour. But they also support another important message, which is about ‘it is easy to do and you can do it’…. this makes people more amenable to accepting and working on the new behaviour. Examples of normal people making an effort and moving into the new mindset and behaviour, which makes it sound ‘doable’ and does not intimidate the team members.

Stories have been told since the beginning of time, even before humans learned to read and write. Everyday events were told as stories to children, scribes, and priests told stories of religious affairs, and leaders told heroic tales of their adventures. These stories have passed on through generations, some of them fill up history books, some are integral to culture, and some are embedded in family values.

Stories are central to human cognition and communication. We engage with others through stories, and storytelling is a lot more than just a recitation of facts and events.

As human beings, we are automatically drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected in them. A leader driving a DevOps culture transformation should never skip an opportunity to smartly leverage stories to accelerate the process of change.

Which four pillars are required to sustain and evolve (DevOps) Culture? How to kick-start the cultural change process and focus on the behavior you would like to see? How DASA’s DevOps Coach program helps the coach to deconstruct the existing Culture, segregate the key drivers, and bring in elements that help expedite the new Culture? Find the answers here

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Rajat Tewari

Co-Founder and CEO, TranZend Consulting LLP

Rajat Tewari brings rich experience of 26 years with reputed multinationals like DuPont, Bausch & Lomb, Coats (FMCG, Lifestyle Brands, Commodities) in Business Management, Sales/Marketing/Branding,…

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