Unlocking a DevOps Culture

Agile operations pioneer Jon Kern and transformation leader Alan Zucker explain why shifting to an agile DevOps environment unleashes business potential.

By Charlotte Jensen

By Charlotte Jensen April 29, 2020

Modern IT teams like to say they live and breathe an agile DevOps culture. But do they really? Proof is in the productivity, according to Jon Kern, agile transformation consultant at Adaptavist and co-author of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

“You can say you’re agile and do DevOps all day long, but it doesn’t really mean that you’re achieving success,” he said.

In his role at Adaptavist, Kern helps companies successfully transition to agile business cultures.

The signs of a truly agile DevOps culture go beyond lip service to a collaborative approach that embraces action, he said.

In simple terms, DevOps blends software development (Dev) with IT operations (Ops), boosting communication and collaboration between the two. The goal is to deliver value much more quickly and increase scalability and reliability, said Alan Zucker, an expert in agile transformation and the founding principal of Project Management Essentials LLC, a training and advisory firm.

“DevOps encompasses principles of lean, agile and systems thinking to provide a mindset, a set of practices, and automation tools to enable greater agility,” Zucker said.

Translating this into a company culture isn’t easy, but it happens, Zucker said, “the magic can occur.”

People Over Process

One of the values of the Agile Manifesto is “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” And in a culture that embodies DevOps values, people come first.

“Companies that succeed in DevOps focus on the culture,” said Zucker. “They recognize that they have hired bright, talented individuals. The role of management is to create an environment where their teams can unlock their creative energy. There needs to be some guardrails on the process, but countless studies have shown that teams produce better results than individuals acting independently.”

A major component is to empower people at the lowest reasonable levels to be accountable for their work, Zucker said. Another is to shift performance recognition from the individual to the team.

Kern said management and executives must be 100% on board with this new way of thinking.

He and consultants like him help companies find their path to productivity. It’s not as simple as taking a two-day Scrum master course or changing people’s titles, Kern said, though it’s OK to start there.

“That’s the biggest culprit: lack of taking it beyond the training wheels stage.” That next stage could entail steps such as being curious, not resting on your current process, but rather trying out different ways of working, Kern explained.

Growing Pains

Zucker pointed to some cultural barriers to watch out for during the implementation stage: The manager still tells the team what to do, still controls who is going to do it, and still monitors their performance.

“Letting go and allowing teams to struggle and sometimes fail is not easy, but that is how they learn and become better,” he said.

concept of DevOps, illustrates software delivery automation through collaboration and communication between software development and information technology operations  in agile development process

In the new paradigm, managers take on more of a “servant leadership” model, Kern advises. There are ways to move from an operational manager to a transformational leader.

“The biggest mistake that I see companies making is confusing doing a process with being agile,” Kern said. “Be humble. The successes come when the soil is fertile for allowing agile and ‘DevOpsy’ things to take place. It’s OK to fail. Be able to do experiments. Don’t be too cocky about it.”

He said it’s all about constantly learning, adapting, changing and growing – and being inquisitive enough to question what isn’t working and to do it better.

“It’s very challenging to be agile in that you have to constantly evaluate what you’re doing,” Kern said. “So it’s not easy to relax.”

But when done right, you deliver business value. Products get better, service gets faster and customer needs are met more effectively. At the same time, the teams are happier and more energized.

The Right Mindset

When an organization successfully lives the DevOps culture, transformation takes place because the top executives support employees. They support the innovative spirit of a team that tries to emerge and do something better for the business, said Kern. And teams are integrated and transparent.

“DevOps got its name because its original focus was breaking the organizational silo between technology development teams and operations,” said Zucker.

It’s made such an impact that phrases like DevSecOps, BusDevSecOps, BusDataSecOps and DevNetOps have now started creeping into the vernacular.

“These monikers explicitly recognize that organizational silos and poor collaboration exist all along the value-delivery stream,” Zucker said.

He said companies must learn to create cultures where best practices, tools, knowledge and patterns are broadly shared throughout the organization.

This spirit of collaboration is one of the guiding principles highlighted by the Agile Manifesto, which states that “business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” The philosophy is just as relevant today as it was 19 years ago, according to [Kern].

“The primary essence of software development is captured in the Agile Manifesto,” said Kern, humbly. He added that much like the Declaration of Independence captured the essence of human freedoms, the Agile Manifesto doesn’t need to change.

“It magically nailed something that we had no intention of. We didn’t get together thinking this could happen. We just decided to publish it. It resonated. It hit a nerve.”

Charlotte Jensen is a contributing writer who specializes in business topics. She is the former executive editor of award-winning Entrepreneur magazine. Find her on Twitter @JensenChar.

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