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The Role of Nudges in DevOps Implementations

Culture and Human Skills, DevOps Basics

by: Mitesh Soni

October 20, 2020

Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel economics prize for his contributions to behavioural economics in 2017. He is known as the Father of Nudge Theory. In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein co-authored the bookNudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

Before getting into the importance of nudges in DevOps practices implementation, let’s understand what is a nudge. Nudges are not about mandating something. They are about understanding people’s mindset, understanding how people make decisions and assisting people to improve decisions and manage changes. 

Example 1: Putting a smiley or an insect in the urinal in a men’s public toilet in Switzerland was shown to improve the aim that results in the cleanliness of the washroom.

Example 2: Putting fruit at eye level is considered as a nudge. Banning unhealthy food is not considered as a nudge.

Let’s explore how nudge theory or nudges are helpful in culture transformation exercises driving the implementation of DevOps practices. There are many theories and concepts available that can be utilized for a mindset change in the organization, but nudge theory looks particularly suitable, to me. Nudge theory is all about nudging people and making changes in policies and implementing things that are beneficial to the organization in the long term.

Every time I come across a behavioral theory or concept, I feel there has to be an application that can be used to improve culture in the context of DevOps. During my experiences with DevOps culture transformation exercises, I realized how it is 90% about humans and 10% about processes and tools.

Generally, automation or tools take a front seat in a Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CICD) implementation, I think, because they are visible. Outcomes or outputs are visible in a dashboard and that is impressive, isn’t it? Almost every DevOps engineer might have experienced a sense of entitlement while using tools such as Jenkins or Azure DevOps or TeamCity or TravisCI. After a while, we all realize that it is a tool-agnostic approach and hence tools are important but they should not take a front seat. 

A DevOps Centre of Excellence (CoE) team has to be a nudge unit to change the culture in the organization in a way that changes people’s mindset and behavior in a way without forcing them into particular options or significantly changing their economic incentives. A DevOps CoE team has accountability for presenting the context in which people make decisions for continuous improvement.

Nudges should be small changes in overall culture that are easy and inexpensive to implement. Many types of nudges can help to cultivate DevOps culture in an organization.

Let’s see how different types of nudges help in DevOps Practices Implementation:

  • Create visual models that include visual and audio components along with models that can be easily mapped with DevOps practices to make people understand the entire concept easily. E.g. Create a restaurant model and map the processes with continuous integration and continuous delivery to make visitors understand how things were and how things can be improved end to end
  • Visualization drives people to accept change
  • Encourage people to identify manual steps in the existing process and provide solutions to improve as is scenario – Value Stream Mapping
  • Once people realize that something can be done in a better way then there are very few chances that they will go revert to previous less effective ways of working
  • Highlight efforts of the people and appreciate to encourage them
  • The DevOps CoE team should interact with the stakeholders and communicate the vision for the culture transformation process. Include teams and other stakeholders in value stream discussions and encourage facilitative questioning such as what can be improved in existing processes and mindset
  • The DevOps CoE team has to support different projects and should be capable to implement CICD in a phased approach
Default nudge
  • Keep DevOps practices implementation such as CICD as a “default” until it is not opted out with valid reasons
  • Research and experimental studies show that making an option a default increases the chance of them to be selected and performed; this is called the default effect
  • Perform feasibility checks based on the overall environment and controls and then only go ahead with the CICD implementation
  • It is important to understand that not every project or every unit is a fit for DevOps practices implementation; it is important to perform an assessment for DevOps readiness and capability and then decide further steps
  • This ‘nudge’ is acceptable when used in genuinely helpful ways, for example reminding people that non-compliance to CICD implementation may bring the project into defaulter’s list and considering the popularity of DevOps, the customer may ask for CICD implementation or quality-related process improvement and it will be difficult to fix things at runtime
  • Discussions are an important part of bringing change in the existing culture. Showcase benefits of CICD implementation such as quality and speed to make people eager to implement DevOps practices
  • Convince people to provide support for implementation and make automation stable
  • Big bang approach makes people worried considering existing deadlines and deliverables
  • The phase-wise implementation helps to build trust with the project team and it makes them in a happy state so that don’t consider change as “extra work”
  • Accessibility of Automation infrastructure helps to change the mindset of people. Centralized infrastructure for proof of concepts can attract people to check feasibility if an end to end automation can be given a try or not
  • It makes adoption faster as installation and configuration activities are not involved in the proof of concept implementation

Limiting nudge


  • Options restriction works better than giving them an option to use any tool they like and any DevOps practices which are feasible:
    • Keep specific options in terms of DevOps practices implementation, such as implement CI only for this quarter
    • Keep all critical and major bugs in the GREEN state before deployment
    • Use open-source tools for Automation, use Jenkins or Azure DevOps for CICD automation
  • Use short term easy gains as incentives to break laziness
  • Continuous Code Inspection and Continuous Integration is relatively easy to implement and it helps to build the confidence of the team
  • Clarify long-term risks of unwise short-term, quick gratification decisions

The social proof nudge


  • It is easy to convince customers and project teams by demonstrating DevOps practices implementation by other teams and the benefits they have achieved.
  • By best practices implementation, tools, processes, and frameworks, we can nudge people to change the mindset and go for tools as well to implement DevOps practices

Numerical anchors nudge


  • Measured metrics with goals can help to nudge stakeholders or teams to change the mindset
  • Give comparisons and references that are relevant to the development team/scrum team/project team. Publicize statistics and facts about DevOps practices implementations and benefits realized during the phase-wise implementation
  • Example: Before DevOps practices implementation, deployment used to take 45 minutes while after DevOps practices implementation, it takes 15 minutes

Competition nudge


  • One of the essential nudges in an organization is competition nudge
  • Spread the word that a specific project or unit is utilizing DevOps practices and managing productivity gains. It encourages other teams and units in the organization to compete and incorporate DevOps practices in their existing culture
  • Be empathic and ‘in tune’ with the Scrum team or development team or project team. Be realistic and understand the point of view of the team rather than imposing automation on them
  • Support them based on the practicality of the situation rather than considering one size fits all
Status quo bias
  • Keep processes to make it easy for people to opt for improvements
  • Make it difficult for people to make unhelpful decisions by continuing existing processes which are not effective

There are some important points while using nudges to transform the existing culture:

  • Keep Calm while you perform activities to transform Culture – it takes time. Circumstances don’t make a champion; they reveal her! Don’t lose heart and keep balance amid chaos in the beginning
  • Do not get frustrated by the rigidness of people when you try to make a change in the organization – culture change takes time; mindset change takes time
  • Maintain calm and presence of mind, do not let yourself be overwhelmed by the rigidness of people
  • Do not panic if culture transformation efforts fail; focus on what you want to achieve; fine-tune the efforts and restart!
  • Make decisions quickly to improve existing practices
  • Rely only on yourself, minimize reliance on others but remember collaboration and communication is key to success in the long term

Cultural transformation is a long exercise and it requires a combination of people, processes and tools to be successful. Nudges help the entire transformation exercise and make the transition smoother.

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