Creating a culture of change, continuous learning, & comfort

This post is an early draft of a chapter in my book,  Monolithic Transformation.

In banking, you don’t often get a clean slate like you would at some of the new tech companies. To transform banking, you not only need to be equipped with the latest technology skills, you also need to transform the culture and skill sets of existing teams, and deal with legacy infrastructure. — Siew Choo Soh, DBS Bank

Most organizations have a damaging mismatch between the culture of service management and the strategic need to become a product organization. In a product culture, you need the team to take on more responsibility, essentially all of the responsibility, for the full life cycle of the product. Week-to-week they need to experiment with new features and interpret feedback from users. In short, they need to become innovators.

Service delivery cultures, in contrast, tend more towards a culture of following up-front specification, process, and verification. Too often when put into practice, IT Service Management (ITSM) becomes a governance bureaucracy that drives project decision. This governance-driven culture tends to be much slower at releasing software than a product culture.

The sadly maligned architectural change advisory boards (CABs) are an example, well characterized by by Jon Hall:

[A] key goal for DevOps teams is the establishment of a high cadence of trusted, incremental production releases. The CAB meeting is often seen as the antithesis of this: a cumbersome and infrequent process, sucking a large number of people into a room to discuss whether a change is allowed to go ahead in a week or two, without in reality doing much to ensure the safe implementation of that change.

Recent studies have even suggested that too much of this process, in the form of change advisory boards, actually damages the business. Most ITSM experts don’t so much disagree as suggest that these governance bureaucracies are doing it wrong. ITSM has been evolving and can evolve more to fit all this new-fangled product think, they add.

Despite the best intentions of ITSM adherents, IT organizations that put service management into practice tend to become slow and ineffective, at least when it comes to change and innovation.

The most difficult challenge for leaders is changing this culture.

What even is culture?

Coffee is important, but not as much as culture.

Culture is a funny word in the DevOps, agile, and digital transformation world. I don’t particularly like it, but it’s the word we have.

Mainstream organizational management work has helpful definitions of culture: “Culture can be seen in the norms and values that characterize a group or organization,” O’Reilly and Tushman write, “that is, organizational culture is a system of shared values and norms that define appropriate attitudes and behaviors for its members.”

Jez Humble points out another definition, from Edgar Schein:

[Culture is] a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

We should take “culture,” then, to mean the mindset used by people in the organization to make day-to-day decisions, policy, and best practices. I’m as guilty as anyone else for dismissing “culture” as simple, hollow acts like allowing dogs under desks and ensuring that there’s six different ways to make coffee in the office. Beyond trivial pot-shots, paying attention to culture is important because it drives of how people work and, therefore, the business outcomes they achieve.

For many years, the DevOps community has used the Westrum spectrum to describe three types of organizational culture, the worst of which ring too true with most people:

From continuousdelivery.com.

Year after year, the DevOps reports show that “high performing” organizations are much more generative than pathologically…as you would suspect from the less than rosy words chosen to describe “power-oriented” cultures. It’s easy to identify your organization as pathological and equally easy to realize that’s unhelpful. Moving from the bureaucratic column to the generative column, however, is where most IT organizations struggle.

Core values of product culture

There are two layers of product culture, at least that I’ve seen over the years and boiled down. The first layer describes the attitudes of product people, the second the management tactics you put in place to get them to thrive.

Product people should be:

  • Innovative — they’re interested in solving problems, discovering problems, and coming up with new ways to accomplish inefficient tasks. These kinds of people also value continuously learning, without which innovation can’t happen except by accident: you don’t want to depend accidentally dropping a burrito into a deep fryer to launch your restaurant chain.
  • Risk takers — I don’t like this term much, but it means something very helpful and precise in the corporate world, namely, that people are willing to do something that has a high chance of failing. The side that isn’t covered enough is that they’re also focused on safety. “Don’t surf if you can’t swim,” as Andrew Clay Shafer summed it up. Risk takers ensure they know how to “swim” and they build safety nets into their process. They follow a disciplined approach that minimizes the negative consequences of failure. The small batch process, for example, with its focus on a small unit of work (a minimal amount of damage if things go wrong and an easier time diagnosing what caused the error) and studying the results, good and bad, creates a safe, disciplined method for taking risks.
  • People focused — products are meant to be used by people, whether as “customers” or “employees.” The point of everything I’m discussing here is to make software that better helps people, be that delivering a product the like using or one that allows them to be productive, getting banking done as quickly as possible so they can get back to living their life, to lengthen DBS Bank’s vision. Focusing on people, then, is what’s needed. Too often, some people are focused on process and original thinking, sticking to those precepts even if they prove to be ineffective. People-focused staff will instead be pragmatic, looking to observe how their software is helping or hindering the people we call “users.” They’ll focus on making people’s lives better, not achieving process excellence, making schedules and dates, or filling out request tickets correctly.

Finding people like this can seem like winning the lottery. Product-focused people certainly are hard to find and valuable, but they’re a lot less rare than you’d think. More importantly, you can create them by putting the right kind of management policy and nudges in place. A famous quip by Adrian Cockcroft then at Netflix, now at Amazon) illustrates this. As he recounts:

[A]t a CIO summit I got the comment “we don’t have these Netflix superstar engineers to do the things you’re talking about”, and when I looked around the room at the company names my response was “we hired them from you and got out of their way.”

There is no talent shortage, just shortage of management imagination and gumption. As most recently described in the 2018 DORA DevOps report, over and over again, research finds that the following gumptions give you the best shot at creating a thriving, product-centric culture: autonomy, trust, and voice. Each of these three support and feed into each other as we’ll see.

Autonomy

People who’re told exactly what to do tend not to innovate. Their job is not to think of new ways to solve problems more efficiently and quickly, or solve them at all. Instead, their job is to follow the instructions. This works extremely well when you’re building IKEA furniture, but following instructions is a port fit when the problem set is unknown, when you don’t even know if you know that you don’t know.

Your people and the product teams need to autonomy to study their users, theorize how to solve their problems, and fail their way to success. Pour on too much command-and-control, and they’ll do exactly what you don’t want: they’ll follow your orders perfectly. A large part of a product-centric organization’s ability to innovate is admitting that people closest to the users — the product team — are the most informed about what features to put into the software and even what the user’s problems are. You, the manager, should be overseeing multiple teams and supporting them by working with the rest of the organization. You’ll lack the intimate, day-to-day knowledge of the users and their problems. Just as a the business analysts and architects in a waterfall process are too distant from the actual work, you will be too and will make the same errors.

The 2018 DORA DevOps report suggests a few techniques for helping product teams gain autonomy:

  • Establishing and communicating goals, but letting the team decide how the work will be done.
  • Removing roadblocks by keeping rules simple.
  • Allowing the team to change rules if the rules are obstacles to achieving the goals.
  • Letting the team prioritize good outcomes for customers, even if it means bending the rules.

This list is a good start. As ever, apply a small batch mentality to how you’re managing this change and adapt according to your findings.

There are some direct governance and technology changes needed to give teams this autonomy. The product teams need a platform and production tools that allow them to actually manage the full-life cycle of their product. “[I]f you say to your team that ‘when you build it you also run it,’” Rabobanks’ Vincent Oostindië says, “you cannot do that with a consolidated environment. You cannot say to a team ‘you own that stuff, and by the way somebody else can also break it.’”

Trust

Taking risks, suggesting new features, resolving problems in production, and otherwise innovating in software requires a great deal of trust, both from management and of management. The DORA report defines trust, in this context as “how much a person believes their leader or manager is honest, has good motives and intentions, and treats them fairly.”

To succeed at digital transformation, the people in the product teams must trust management. Changing from a services-driven organization of a product organization requires a great deal of upheaval and discomfort. Staff are being asked to behave much differently than they’ve been told to in the past. The new organization can seem threatening to careers. People will gripe and complain, casting doubt on success. Management needs to first demonstrate that their desire to change can be trusted. Doing things like celebrating failures, rewarding people for using the new methods, and spending money on the trappings of the new organization (like free breakfast or training) will demonstrate management commitments.

Just as staff must trust management, managers must trust the product teams to be responsible and independent. This means managers can’t constantly check in on and meddle in the day-to-day affairs of product teams. Successful managers will find it all too tempting to get their hands dirty and volunteer to help out with problems. Getting too involved on a day-to-day basis is likely to hurt more than help, however.

Felten Buma uses Finding Nemo as a metaphor for the trust managers must have in their product teams…if you’ll pardon a cartoon reference in this book. Nemo’s father, Marlin, is constantly worried about and micromanaging his son, having been shocked by the death of his wife, Nemo’s mother. They’re fish as you might recall, so his mother was eaten one day. Not only that, but Nemo has a weak flipped on one side. Overall, this means Nemo’s father is a helicopter parent, but is also forever telling Nemo that he’s not skilled enough can’t do risky things, like swimming beyond the reef. While most leaders haven’t experienced the loss of one of their parents from fish’s meal-making, they’ve likely experienced some disasters in the past that could make them helicopter managers, always looking to “help” staff with advice about what works and doesn’t work. As in the movie, until that manager actually trusts the product team and demonstrates that trust by backing off, the product teams will lack the full moral and self-trust needed to perform well.

Buma suggests an exercise to help transform helicopter managers. In a closed meeting of managers, ask them to each share one of their recent corporate failures. Whether or not you discuss how it was fixed is immaterial to the exercise, the point is to have the managers practice being vulnerable and then show them that their career doesn’t end. Then, to practice giving up control, ask them to deligrate an important task of theirs to someone else. Buma says that surprisingly, most managers find these two tasks very hard and some outright reject it. Those managers who can go through these two exercises are likely mentally prepared to be good, transformational leaders.

Voice

The third leg of transformative leadership is giving product teams voice. Once teams trust management and start acting more autonomously, they’ll need to have the freedom to speak up and suggest ways to improve not only the product, but the way they work. A muzzled product team is much less valuable than one that can speak freely. As the DORA report defines it:

Voice is how strongly someone feels about their ability and their team’s ability to speak up, especially during conflict — for example, when team members disagree, when there are system failures or risks, and when suggesting ideas to improve their work.

Put another way, you don’t want people to be “courageous.” Instead, you want open discussions of failure and how to improve to be common and ordinary, “boring,” not “brave.” The opposite of giving your team’s voice is suppressing their suggestions, dismissing them, and explaining why such thinking is dangerous or “won’t work here.” Traditional managers tend to be deeply offended when “their” staff speaks to the rest of the organization independently, when they “go around” their direct line managers. This kind of thinking is a good indication that the team lacks true voice. While it’s certain more courteous to involve your manager in such discussions, management should trust teams to be autonomous enough to do the right thing.

In an organization like the US Air Force, where you literally have to ask permission to “speak freely,” giving product teams voice can seem impossible. To solve this problem, the Kessel Run team devised a relatively simple fix: they asked the airmen and women to wear civilian clothes when they were working on their products. Without the explicit reminder of rank that a uniform and insignia enforces, team members found it easier to talk freely with each other, regardless of rank. Of course, managers also explicitly told and encouraged this behavior. Other organizations like Allstate have used this same sartorial trick, encouraging managers to change from button-up shirts and suits to t-shirts and hoodies instead. Dress can be surprisingly key for changing culture. As a Nissan factory manager put it, “[i]f I go out to the plant in a $400 suit and tie, people don’t talk to me so freely.”

Managing ongoing culture change

Improving culture is a never ending process. Pivotal, for example has created an excellent, beloved culture over the past 25 years but is still constantly monitoring and improving it. And while I might sigh at yet another employee survey to fill out, the company has demonstrated that it actually listens and changes. This is very rare for any company and it shows how much work is needed to maintain a good culture.

Employee surveys are a good way to monitor progress. You should experiment with what to put in these surveys, and even other means of getting feedback on your organization’s culture. Dick’s Sporting Goods narrowed down to ENPS as small and efficient metric. Longer term, Dick’s Jason Williams says that they’ve seen some former employees come back to their team, another good piece of feedback for how well you’re managing your organization’s cultural change.

How you react to these surveys and feedback is even more important than gathering the feedback. Just as you expect your product teams to go through a small batch process, reacting to feedback from users, you should cycle through organizational improvement theories, paying close attention to the feedback you get from surveys and other means.

The ultimate feedback, of course, will be if you achieve the business goals derived from your strategy. But, you need to make sure that success isn’t at the cost of incurring cultural debt that will come due in the future. This debt often comes due in the form of stressed out staff leaving or, worse, going silent and no longer telling you about what they’re learning from failures. Then you’re back in the same situation you were trying to escape from all this digital transformation, an organization that’s scared and static, rather than savvy and successful.

This post is an early draft of a chapter in my book,  Monolithic Transformation.

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