DevOps Leader: 5 Tips for Managing Cultural Change

Culture and Human Skills

It has become a truism within the DevOps movement that embracing DevOps is much more about making a cultural change than about adopting new processes and technologies.

But changing an organization’s existing internal culture can be profoundly difficult. As Peter Drucker famously noted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” All the best-laid DevOps plans in the world might not make a bit of difference if you can’t get your team to shift its mindset.

As a DevOps leader, managing this cultural change will likely be one of your most frustrating — but ultimately most rewarding — challenges.

Here are five tips from DevOps experts to help manage that change:

1. Cultivate the 5 leadership traits that lead to high performance.

Pick up any self-help book, and you’re sure to read some variation on the mantra that you can’t control whether other people change, you can only control yourself. It might be trite, but it’s true.

Fortunately, as a DevOps leader, you can make changes in yourself that tend to lead to better performance for your team. The most recent DORA State of DevOps report revealed, “The characteristics of transformational leadership — vision, inspirational communication, intellectual stimulation, supportive leadership, and personal recognition — are highly correlated with IT performance.” By developing these characteristics within yourself, you can help set your team up for success.

2. Get to know your team.

Writing for, Helen Beal examined the importance of understanding other peoples’ motivations. “Conflict often occurs when people don’t understand each other,” she wrote. But rather than embarking on a frivolous team-building exercise, she recommended using a more scientific approach to learning more about your personality and the personalities of the people you work with. That might involve the SCARF self-assessment, the MBTI or another well-researched instrument.

3. Ask people to explain their current processes.

In a podcast, Gene Kim talked about how Capital One successfully scaled DevOps throughout its IT organization. One of their techniques was to ask people to walk them through their current processes. Most realized about halfway through the explanation that their way was no good. “Just having people explain what they do leads to this aha moment where they are convincing themselves that they need to change,” he said. “I just love that.”

4. Focus on changing behaviors, not beliefs.

John Shook is an expert on cultural change. In the 1980s, he helped introduce GM workers at the NUMMI plant to Toyota’s way of producing cars, and the result was a radical improvement in quality and much happier workforce. He wrote, “The typical Western approach to organizational change is to start by trying to get everyone to think the right way. This causes their values and attitudes to change, which, in turn, leads them naturally to start doing the right things.”

He continued, “What my NUMMI experience taught me that was so powerful was that the way to change culture is not to first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave — what they do. Those of us trying to change our organizations’ culture need to define the things we want to do, the ways we want to behave and want each other to behave, to provide training and then to do what is necessary to reinforce those behaviors. The culture will change as a result.”

5. Measure and reward the right things.

As soon as you begin measuring something, you will begin changing behavior. Make sure you’re rewarding people for meeting business goals, not just for crossing off boxes on their to-do lists. In the words of McKinsey & Company advisors, “Measure and reward the result, not process compliance.”

You can learn more about managing the cultural change necessary for DevOps through our DevOps Leader (DOL) Certification. Learn how to design a DevOps organization, get ideas for organizing workflows, define meaningful metrics, gain value stream mapping skills, discover the Spotify Squad model, and much more. Get certified today—find an education partner near you!

Cynthia Harvey

About the Author

Cynthia Harvey is a freelance writer and editor based in the Detroit area. She has been covering the technology industry for more than fifteen years.

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