Why culture is paramount in achieving DevOps success

Culture at DevOpsGroup

One of the defining characteristics of DevOps is culture. It’s all about eradicating the silos between technology teams, fostering a collaborative effort and introducing an attitude of shared responsibility. The notion is that if everyone works together, they can bring the organisation forward and generate increased value for the customer.

Frameworks such as the CALMS model – which stands for Culture, Automation, Lean, Measurement and Sharing – place culture at the forefront of the DevOps movement. What’s clear is that although these aspects work hand-in-hand, enabling a culture of learning and change within an enterprise is a must if digital transformation initiatives are to succeed.

The importance of culture is also enshrined in literature. Writing in Organizational Culture and Leadership, former MIT lecturer and author Edgar H. Schein defined it as a “pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be considered valid”. He believed that culture should be taught to new members of a community as the “correct way to perceive, think and feel” business problems.

By fostering the right culture, organisations and teams can achieve a lot of great things – whether it’s increased productivity or feeling valued. In this post, we’ll talk about the fundamental concepts of culture, how to enable a culture of change and how culture is paramount within DevOps. But, perhaps more importantly, we’ll show how it can be your competitive advantage.

Breaking down culture

Culture isn’t, by any means, a new phenomenon. However, within the business setting, it’s something that can make or break an organisation. If employees feel valued by their employers, they’re more likely to do produce better work. And this means the customer gets the best products and services possible.

Getting culture right isn’t easy, though. It’s something that takes a lot of thinking, time and contribution from multiple parties. Theories are a massive help, and a great example is Schein’s Framework. It outlines the principles and ideologies that underpin organisational culture: artifacts, values and assumed values.

Schein came up with three levels to help organisations break down culture.

Artifacts are the things you’d like to see, hear and feel when you’re exposed to a new group (such as technology products, organisational processes, ceremonies and clothing).

Espoused values reflect what the organisation says it wants to achieve, and how (vision and mission statements, written organisational values etc).

Finally, Underlying assumptions are the things that we take for granted but that are often not spoken about (our values, beliefs and assumptions about our organisation and the market in which we operate). For example, if you see your organisation as “cool” or a “innovator”, that’s a very different underlying assumption compared to “traditional”, “safe” or “respectable”.

To picture this, private bank Coutts (founded in 1692) would have a very different set of “underlying assumptions” compared to a FinTech challenger bank like Starling (founded in 2014). This would influence the services they offer, the way they go to market, the office environment, how they treat their staff and so forth.

Steve Thair, co-founder and chief product officer of DevOpsGroup, believes that this framework can help technology-focused organisations create and implement a culture that works for everyone. “When it comes to enabling a successful culture, the first step has to be the vision and making sure that you understand the things you represent. That includes organisation goals and value propositions,” he says.

“I find that, in order to lead people and stay ahead of the curve, you must give your team something to aim for and a clear direction to travel. If you’re being negative, you won’t go very far. Successful organisations are good at articulating a shared vision.”

Changing behaviour

Introducing a culture doesn’t happen overnight, but there are things you can do to accelerate the speed of this process – especially when it comes to people. At DevOpsDays Rome in 2012, Damon Edwards notably said: “You can’t change culture, but you can change behaviour.”

With this quote in mind, Steve says it’s easier to create an effective culture by making simple changes to the way people behave and interact with each other. “This can be anything from the way you measure work to the way you celebrate success. For instance, you could implement Kanban boards to visualise your work or introduce new employee incentives,” he recommends.

“The journey towards a new culture is incremental, and many organisations will reap the rewards further down the line. But it’s important to have those visible artifacts, such as meeting spaces and visual workflows, to enable these changes and act as visible reminders that a change is taking place.”

Culture is as an advantage

Once you’ve laid the foundations for your organisational culture and have it in operation, you need ensure it keeps running smoothly and that everyone is in tune with it.  “For me, to be a successful organisation in today’s interconnected world, you need to enforce a culture of learning and adaptation,” continues Steve.

“The rate of change is always accelerating. So, if you’re building an organisation that’s delivering a specific product and realise that customers no longer want it further down the line, it’s probably because you haven’t been tracking the attitudes of your customers. It soon becomes clear that you need insurmountable change to pivot your organisation and meet these new and emerging needs – while taking advantage of new technologies.”

To Steve, having an effective culture in place allows organisations to be productive and deliver customer value. He concludes: “With a culture focused on learning from failure and delivering value for the customer, you’ll always be creating relevant products and making use of technology that might let you deliver your services better, faster and cheaper.”

Clearly, organisational change is complex and takes time. But with the right mentality and frameworks, you can easily embark on this journey and ensure your organisation is always at the cutting edge. It just comes down to experimenting and learning.

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