The challenges of driving a DevOps Culture:

“The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate”
– Gruenter and Whitaker

I was talking to an Information Technology (IT) veteran recently, and he was discussing the transition from Traditional methods to Agile and now DevOps, which is being increasingly implemented in IT organisations around the world. DevOps breaks down the walls between Development and Operations, creating teams that continually loop between developing products and implementing them, reducing errors in real time while minimising disruption of work (the CALMS process of Culture, Automation, Lean, Measurement, Sharing).

It was an interesting discussion on the challenges of shifting mindsets of teams so that they take accountability for the full process from concept to final application.

Any such change at the workplace has to happen in the middle of daily work pressures. The leadership is delivering on ongoing commitment while orchestrating a change to a new process of working.

Usually, the leader has limited bandwidth and time to engage with the teams. So the key question that came up during the discussion was “What are the key actions for a leader who is driving a DevOps culture in the midst of deadlines, product development and ensuring a cash flow?”

Before moving to this question, it would be important to decipher culture a bit more. The culture of any group, team or organisation takes some time to get ‘cemented’ and more time to be changed. Thus, culture is the most difficult to change in an organisation.

In the simplest terms, culture is the process by which members of a group engage with each other.

DevOps culture

It requires the following four pillars to sustain and evolve:

  1. Architecture: This comprises what we can see or hear. The workplace layout, clothing, group dynamics, communication, decision making, hierarchy, socialising, reward/punishment, rituals etc. The architecture is a manifestation of the other pillars and yet loops back to strengthen them in the minds of the group members. For example, the CEO of an organisation declares that a culture of ‘equality’ be fostered in the organisation. So, all employees are asked to wear a uniform, have meals in the same cafeteria, and shift to an open office layout. These new ways of working/engaging would demonstrate the organisational culture.
  2. Declared values: This is what is stated by the group members as the ‘right thing to do’. For example, a new CEO takes charge and declares an ‘open door’ policy to break down silos. He communicates and emphasises this cultural change and models it effectively by meeting employees, responding to communication, and taking feedback. Slowly, his leadership team starts adopting this behaviour. Sometimes these declared values are aspirational and are not followed in the true sense. For example, a team may claim to believe in teamwork. They may have posters, messages, and other rituals emphasising teamwork, but in reality, they may be driving individual agendas, as the ‘hidden belief’ is that only individual performance is rewarded in the organisation.
  3. Hidden beliefs: These are learned beliefs that are not openly espoused but accepted as the real truth or ways to survive and thrive in the organisation. An organisation may have a declared value of ‘open communication,’ but the hidden belief would be that communication should be filtered through the right channels before being sent out. Another one could be that if the boss has taken credit for your work, keep quiet; he will return the favour later. In an organisation I consulted, a senior leader would shout at his team members. On the face of it, it seemed insulting and in violation of respectful behaviour. In reality, there was an underlying belief that only the members he cares for are subject to that atrocity. So, if one listens patiently to the tirade, good things will happen later.
  4. “Emotional fabric’: The combination of structure, declared values and hidden values help create emotions that are common in that group. This is the ‘emotional fabric’ that fuels the existing behaviours. These emotions are based on the alignment or conflicts between the other three pillars. For example, in a team that talks about teamwork but quietly focusses on individual performance, the emotional fabric would consist of distrust, insecurity, competitiveness and relatively higher stress.

Now, looking from the perspective of a DevOps team, which is emerging from a siloed mindset of a Traditional or Agile process, what could a leader do to bring about culture change?

The first step would be to understand the values and behaviours that are required to be demonstrated by the team. As per generally accepted understanding of a successful DevOps culture, the behaviours required to be demonstrated could include the following:

  • Working as a team, where an individual is subordinated to the group.
  • Every individual takes integral responsibility for delivering end to end.
  • Consumer mindset.
  • Higher creativity and fail fast; turn around good ideas.

A leader who is working to build a DevOps culture could answer a few important questions to kick start the culture change process:

  1. What are the behaviours that I want to see?: Culture ‘speaks’ through the behaviour of the group. If a group is clear about the new behaviour that is being inculcated, they will respond faster. The behaviour should be clearly articulated, simple to follow and demonstrable. A lot of behavioural change processes get derailed, as the employees are not clear about what they are required to do. On the other hand, as the new behaviour may be threatening the ‘comfort zone’ of the employees, there may be slight variations in how employees respond to it. That should be fine as long as the overall group is moving in the desired direction.
  2. Am I consistently demonstrating the desired behaviour?: The leader is being watched 24/7, and his/her behaviour will decide how much of the change will happen. The leader should strive to embody the desired behaviour and demonstrate it to the team. Effective authentic leadership is when the leader demonstrates the new behaviour consistently and builds the trust of his/her team members.
  3. What is my communication process?: Communication is the ‘oxygen’ that keeps the ‘culture change process’ alive. There is no limit to the communication that could be done to drive change. At a minimum, the average communication should go up multiple times to support the change. One of the biggest fallacies with leadership is the presumption that if a message has been communicated to the team members, they have heard and understood it.

    The question that we need to ask is that even if the team members have ‘received’ the message, have they ‘accepted’ it? This may require a combination of various communication/learning tools like emails, verbal discussions, training programs, corporate stories etc. There is a saying that ‘the doors to a person’s mind open from the inside’. The leader has to use the powerful skills of listening and questioning to help drive the key messages to the team.

  4. Do the team members see value in the change?: Changing behaviour is about fighting inertia. There is a natural tendency to resist and avoid change. Putting pressure beyond a point is futile. Eventually the leadership has to show the team how this change of mindset will benefit them. A compelling argument can reduce the ‘change anxiety’ and help the team embrace the new ways.

Once these fundamental issues are tackled, the leader can start implementing changes to align with each of the cultural pillars (Architecture, Declared Values, Hidden Beliefs, Emotional Fabric) using a structured process.

An organisational mindshift of this nature would be greatly facilitated by a DevOps Coach, who brings an in-depth understanding of cultural drivers and handholds the leader in building the new thought process.

The coach is not driving the change but is a powerful catalyst who uses engagement tools like listening, rapport building, questioning, team building to facilitate accountability, execution and outcome.

The DASA DevOps Coach program truly emphasises the importance of culture in driving DevOps. While the program surely builds the competency of the coach in terms of the aforementioned skills, it also helps the coach to deconstruct the existing culture, segregate the key drivers and then bring in elements that help expedite the new culture.

This whole process requires the coach to wear four distinct hats while engaging with the team:

  1. Coach
  2. Facilitator
  3. Mentor
  4. Consultant

Each of the above is a distinct approach to help the team (and the leader) transform into a DevOps Culture.

Conclusively, the leader has to balance his/her everyday work targets, deadlines and other organisational issues while driving a culture transformation. A clearly thought-out process, preferably with a guide, can successfully expedite it in the desired direction.

DASA DevOps Coach extends the skills of any professional in a DevOps environment to help team members and other stakeholders in the organization apply DevOps concepts and principles within their organization. Learn more

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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,…