Understanding Agile and DevOps: the Power of Culture
September 28, 2017
We all want to be our best selves. The need to compete for drives the desire for optimization – to react faster, work better and deliver greater value. Agile and DevOps are great frameworks to achieve this. But these are methods. Mindsets. Not goals in and of themselves.
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In today’s business landscape, Agile is hard to miss. Everybody has heard at least something about it. Scrum is probably one of its most prominent and evocative aspects, being both easy to recognize and relatively easy to apply. It provides a simple, elegant and easily digestible view of the modern team, one that has caught and captivated the attention of many organizations and influenced untold numbers of transformations over the years.
More recently, DevOps has entered the business lexicon. Like Agile, it promises enhanced efficiency, greater speed, better results and a wealth of opportunities to hone your competitive edge. Promises like these are seductive, particularly in an era of rampant disruption, and it’s understandable that so many businesses have latched onto DevOps as the next big thing.
Understandable, but also unfortunate. Coupled with the power of the bandwagon effect, the hype surrounding DevOps has allowed misconceptions to flourish. After all, the existence of a ‘next big thing’ implies an evolution. It implies there is a previous thing, one that is now passé, played out. As a result, companies increasingly seem to view DevOps as a successor to Agile, as if the arrival of the former has rendered the latter obsolete.
This could not be further from the truth. DevOps is not replacing Agile any more than Design Thinking is replacing Lean. These are not products or toolsets that can be rolled out according to universal law. They are not the next rungs in the ladder. They are, fundamentally, a means to an end. And achieving that end is first and foremost a matter of culture.
Much has been written about Spotify, and rightly so. Its squads and guilds speak to the imagination, as do its accomplishments. With such a successful implementation of the Agile framework so clearly visible, with so many sources to consult, it’s extremely tempting to adopt their approach as if it were the gold standard. But to do so would be a mistake.
There can be only one Spotify model, because there is only one Spotify. The unique combination of organizational values and cultural attributes that have allowed Spotify’s approach to flourish exist in only one place: within their organization. It may be tempting to approach DevOps or Agile as cookie-cutter solutions, especially when disruptors are at the gates, but companies who do so run the risk of missing out on the true potential of these frameworks.
Simply put, DevOps does not exist as a product. It’s a mindset, not a discrete package you can roll out in your business. Similarly, there is no predetermined, shake-and-bake approach to a successful Agile transformation. You cannot purchase a Lean add-on for your company, or a Design Thinking overlay.
Some organizations achieve mesmerizing results by implementing DevOps, Agile and other methods, but these results aren’t included in the frameworks themselves. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The true magic of the framework lies in how you apply it to your organization.
Agile and DevOps are both designed to help organizations optimize value. Each framework does this in its own way, but it’s important to remember that these methods are not contradictory. DevOps is not the successor to Agile, nor is it ‘better’. Neither is inferior to the other; they’re simply different.
Ultimately, frameworks offer different approaches to achieving similar goals. Where Agile might be a perfect fit for one organization, DevOps might suit another company better. Each has its own merits. That means it’s less about using the right framework, and more about using it for the right reasons.
Implementing Agile or DevOps requires significant effort. The consequences are far-reaching. In that sense, it’s always wise to enlist the help of qualified support. Choosing the right coaches can make or break a transition. But there are many different types of coaches, so you will have to choose wisely.
Distinguishing between consultants, delivery leads and personal coaches is an important step toward finding the talent best equipped to handle your specific situation. Each has their own unique skill set. Be mindful of this, and know that your coaches will determine the shape and form of your transition.
Even when we move past the misconceptions that surround Agile and DevOps transformations, there are still other risks to contend with. In Leading Change, John Kotter provides an excellent overview:
Even by themselves, each of these risks can cast a shadow over your transformation process. If you cannot create a sufficient sense of urgency, your transformation will likely fail to meet its objectives. Similarly, the absence of active support from the upper levels of the organization can be fatal. You must establish a solid vision, rally your forces around it, push through the inevitable difficulties and ensure there are enough opportunities for short-term success to make the long-term battle feel like it is worth fighting.
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In large organizations, change needs visionary leadership as much as it needs grassroots growth.
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Each framework has its own approach to minimizing these risks, and which framework is best for you is of course highly dependent on your organization. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), for example, emphasizes leadership support on all levels. In large organizations, change needs visionary leadership as much as it needs grassroots growth. SAFe approaches Agile transformation holistically, by weaving it into the entire organization. By building support for the new direction on every level, it creates a rich and robust environment for ongoing change.
But this is only one approach. The key here is not to focus on the framework, but on your corporate culture and the approach best suited to fostering change within it. This is where coaching can truly shine: in keeping the focus on culture and transformation, instead of blindly driving toward a certain framework or methodology.
Cultural change is the most crucial step in any transformation, but it’s also the hardest to achieve. In our experience, resistance to change is often caused by the fact that businesses get used to a certain way of doing things. Even if your formula is no longer the winning formula, it’s still your formula. To leave that behind takes courage and willpower.
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In an increasingly digital world, an agile workforce is not just an advantage. Speed and flexibility are rapidly becoming essential to survival. With legacy workforce models struggling to keep up with on-demand labor trends, the time has clearly come for a new approach.
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By the same logic, however, transformations can only be truly successful once they become part of your cultural values. It’s not the DevOps framework that gets great results, it’s the DevOps culture. Without a shift in culture, changes will begin to revert and degrade from the moment you release your grip. In the absence of external pressure, only shared values and internalized norms will make sure that your new way of doing things remains your preferred way of doing things.
It’s important that the coaches you rely on are sensitive to this and are able to foster that change in every level of your organization. Transforming an entire organization takes time and effort; most of that effort takes place at the ground level. Understandably, that can create a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt. This is precisely why real, human connections are vital to success. Good coaches will do everything in their power to not only help the organization adapt and adopt the framework that is best suited to achieve their goals, but to make sure it can actually become a part of their culture.
At the end of the day, whether you choose an Agile framework, a DevOps approach or one of the many other methodologies should primarily be determined by the essence of your organization. Agile and DevOps are not solutions – they are methods to achieve the solution. By the same logic, coaches are much more than agents of change. They are the advisors, guides and supporters that assist your teams and your talent in becoming agents of change themselves.