Asked and Answered



What is the legendary creature we call Culture Change? I keep hearing it in DevOps circles as the answer to everything, but I’ve never seen it grazing calmly in the wild. To separate myth from reality, I connected with Mike Burrows, author of the influential book Kanban from the Inside and Right to Left. Burrows is also founder of Agendashift, an organization which helps organizations change to become more positive and productive.

What did I learn? That the disciplines of DevOps and Agile are not fundamentally flawed, but the preconceived notions of how to deliver them are fraught with challenge. Let’s Rethink this, and include principles such as servant leadership, to help address the real goal, which is that a change of culture is a consequence of a change of discourse within the organization, not the other way around.

Getting this right can change the process from a top-down exercise that is often doomed to failure, to an ongoing process which is inclusive and productive. To learn more, read on.

Jon Collins: Thanks for speaking to me, Mike! Let’s get straight down to it. In software development circles, people already struggle with simpler notions such as continuous integration, just being able to build things efficiently, and then they think they’ve got to “do” DevOps in some way. And that’s partially true, because if you can’t build things quickly and automatically, then you’re not going to deploy them very fast. But ultimately, a lot of the conversations come down to the fact that all you need is a “culture change.”

Mike Burrows: That’s one of my trigger phrases! When people say: “What we need is a culture change,” it is what I call begging the objective. It actually says so little, it’s vacuous. It says nothing new at all. It doesn’t identify the real challenges at all. It’s such an empty phrase. The word culture is so often used in ways that are platitudes.

Jon Collins: All we need are a few pictures on the walls with really handy aphorisms. Here’s my hypothesis: there’s no such thing as a culture change. What I have seen, however, is what I call “The Guru’s Dilemma.” What happens is, a DevOps “Guru” will go into a place and they make a difference. They help people prioritize and whatever else. But then after that, people keep trying to do the things that they were told, and then a couple of weeks later, they’re scratching their heads and they say, “Well, I think it was a bit like this.”

And six months later they’re back where they started. I’ve seen that with DevOps, and its predecessors—Agile, DSDM and so on. There’s a decay curve—over time people revert to type.

Mike Burrows: Well, I’ve a lot of sympathy for that. The idea that you are going to upgrade your organization, the way you upgrade your email server, is a ridiculous idea that fails, more often than it succeeds, and, like you say, organizations tend to revert to type anyway.

If you’re going to the deep theory of it, you need to look at the underpinnings of dialogic organizational development, which is one of the foundations for Agendashift now. This is founded on social constructionism; your organization is socially constructed, and if the organization’s discourse isn’t changed, then it hasn’t really changed at all! If you really want to fundamentally change the organization then its discourse has to change.

And that’s going to probably start with some new kinds of conversations and that’s where we start at Agendashift. We don’t start with solutions. We don’t start with frameworks, we don’t start with bandwagons. We start with: What is it we’re trying to do? What are the outcomes that we want to achieve? We do that in a way that confronts reality and is honest about the obstacles that we face.

Jon Collins: I’m glad you’ve brought in obstacles, as—to state the obvious – these are the things that make change so hard to do. As I’ve said more than once, “if it was easy, everyone would have done it already!”

Mike Burrows: Fair point, but it’s important not to see obstacles just as burdens. In fact, obstacles can be seen as kind of grist to the mill, by turning them into outcomes. You’re establishing some kind of direction from where you are now, and then it becomes not about implementing the solution—solutions are things that emerge when they are needed.

The result is also much more people-focused, more people-positive. By considering obstacles as outcomes, you can bring in more complexity, but in a positive way.

Jon Collins: If it’s not about culture change, is it about honesty, in that you’re never going to arrive in this Nirvana state where day-to-day things are just “Agile?” You’re going to need to face up to the fact that new challenges are going to continue to come at you and it’s how you address them. There is no future, easier state, but there is an acceptance that things will continue to trip you up.

Mike Burrows: Yes, though you shouldn’t deny that culture change exists. However, to confront culture as the main thing that needs fixing, I think, is counterproductive. Culture changes through a natural process, involving the discourse of the organization. It changes through experience, and it changes through addressing some of the problems that the organization has.

But most importantly, to take culture as something separate from the mission of the organization, I think, is the mistake. The approach I have learned and tested, is to make it a strategy conversation, that can be more or less focused on ways of working.

Jon Collins: Got it. OK, to take this to its extreme, do you believe there’s zero point in getting things to change on the ground if they’re not things that are relevant to the business strategy? Is that just a pointless exercise?

Mike Burrows:  I wouldn’t go quite that far. That’s a bit black and white. To take a different tack, I do believe in teams having autonomy and actually having a strategy of their own.

Also, I think it’s important to change your view of “strategy.” As soon as you accept that strategy is a continuous process, it changes things dramatically. It’s quite a cool thing. There are things happening and there need to be mechanisms that keep those things pulling in the same direction. So, strategy becomes “aligning mechanisms.”

This principle is one of the contributions of the Viable Systems Model to business management. It’s identifying at what levels in the organization strategy is happening, and what mechanisms are keeping them aligned and seeing them as processes that need to be connected. This approach is much more helpful than seeing requirements as a backlog that you need to plow through.

I think it’s vital to get away from seeing development or strategy deployment as ploughing through a backlog of requirements. Instead, I’d suggest starting from the outcome, working backwards to understand the process, and align to that.

Jon Collins: Start with the end in mind. Sounds familiar! In DevOps terms, this reminds me of the growing discipline of Value Stream Management. This is actually about having a living process, which responds to the changes it can measure. Like an organism, the process recognizes how well it’s doing at that moment in time, based on what it needs to achieve.

Mike Burrows: Yes, to succeed, the process must be adaptive, with participation built in. It’s not one where one part of the organization is imposing its will. The different parts of the organization need to keep talking to each other, and they must be working towards the same ends—this means mentoring, rather than imposing or conflicting.

Jon Collins: Right. What we’re calling strategy all needs to be in alignment right the way through the organization. It’s not a kind of add-on. There’s no point in having those conversations, no point in progressing, unless you’ve got that level of alignment in the first place.

Mike Burrows: We call it a ‘Deliberately Adaptive Organization’ (I adapted that from the Deliberately Developmental Organization, the model at the heart of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s An Everyone Culture). Every level of the organization needs to have these adaptive, responsive strategy processes in order to be healthy and viable. How you enhance, how you sustain these continuous processes indefinitely, how the organization produces itself. This is all very important and exciting.

If the organization needs to produce itself (which all organizations do), this is going to be about systems, how they form and self-perpetuate. This brings us to leadership, or specifically the notion of Servant Leadership: note that one of its goals is to produce the next generation of servant leaders; a self-creating and perpetuating process.

Jon Collins: Let’s make sure I’m keeping up here—deliberately adaptive organizations require a certain type of leadership, which works from the back. You’re saying that servant leadership implies, essentially, a more organic organization that is responding to change. That’s not about a strong leader working from the front. Have I got that right?

Mike Burrows: I want to be clear, I do believe in leadership, but about servant leadership and host leadership in particular. These are the kinds of models of leadership that most appeal to me. Just leading from the front is not going to be successful by itself, when it comes to becoming an adaptive organization.

We can see this in both Agile and DevOps, both of which were trying to solve inherent problems in how software was being created, around the turn of the century. But neither fixed all the problems they were addressing.

Jon Collins: I think there is a kind of “better place” notion that whatever you’re doing right now is wrong and you should be in a better place.

Mike Burrows: DevOps was confronting a real issue, that development and operations were not well enough integrated, but in some ways, DevOps made it worse.

I did some work for organizations where they sent everyone on Scrum training and then the development people are complaining that the operations people don’t come to all their meetings and the operations people are complaining that Agile teams are throwing stuff over the fence at them. It’s the Scrum Team centricity of it.  And the idea we put a very non-porous boundary around the team and you’re either in the team or not, you’re coming to all our meetings or you’re not welcome, that kind of stuff starts to grow.

And now we have another problem, what Martin Fowler once called: “the Agile industrial complex imposing Agile on people.” The dominance of Agile is seeing processes imposed on teams without any kind of dialogue.

There must be a better answer than just rolling out a framework over the feelings of the people who are going to have to work in different ways. Thinking specifically about DevOps, I think the solution is engagement. What that actually means is helping practitioners engage, and helping organizations engage with their staff under conditions of change.

We’re hiring smart people in knowledge work, and it seems kind of crazy that we would hire smart and expensive people and then tell them what to do and how to do their jobs, where most of the people doing the work actually understand their work better than their managers.

Jon Collins: As per the Irish Adage, if you want to get there, don’t start from here?

Mike Burrows: Something like that!

Jon Collins: Mike, I’d love to speak to you more about this, but I guess I’ll have to read your book!

Mike Burrows: It’s been a pleasure.


You can also listen to the full conversation here.