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Transformational leadership: How to manage a DevOps culture shift

Steve Mayner SAFe® Senior Program Consultant , Scaled Agile, Inc.
The words

“70% of change initiatives fail…”

This claim, by John Kotter in his 1996 book Leading Change, was based on his years of experience researching organizational change as a professor at Harvard Business School. This declaration, made well before the advent of DevOps, set off years of debate by scholars and practitioners who alternately sought to support, or refute, Kotter’s estimate.

While the debate on the accuracy of a 70% failure rate continues to this day, what's not in dispute is that organizational change is difficult, and often fails to reach the desired objectives. Organizational change is critical to the success of a DevOps transformation, but research clearly demonstrates that initiatives involving culture change have the highest probability of failure.

So what do these dismal numbers about organizational change say about your potential for success leading a DevOps transformation?  A transformational DevOps initiative requires a transformational leadership approach to succeed. In my consulting practice, I've had quite a bit of time to think about what makes for a successful organizational transformation, and what works for DevOps leaders. It's also the subject of my presentation at DevOps Enterprise Summit 2016.

But before I get into the details of what transformational leadership is and how to execute, it's important to understand the scope of the challenge.

The greatest threat to DevOps

The threat this failure rate represents to your organization, and your DevOps initiative, is that the ability to change and adapt to a never ending stream of internal and external forces has never been greater. Market disruption, hyper-competition, global economics, geo-political instability, currency fluctuations, workforce demographics, and rapid advances in technology are just a few of the factors that leaders must navigate every day.  The ability to adapt and to innovate in this environment has become a core competency to maintain competitive advantage, and in some cases, to survive.

And so we have the classic case of the irresistible force and the immovable object. The dynamics of our operating environment create a constant and compelling need to change, while simultaneously, we know from research and from practice that change is slow, difficult, and prone to failure.

This is a critical conversation for DevOps leaders to understand, because for so many organizations, DevOps has the potential to be a force multiplier in the ability to reduce time-to-market while increasing quality, productivity, and predictability.  That is what the field reports from the many case study presenters at the DevOps Enterprise Summit over the last two years have illustrated.

The challenge is that not only does DevOps adoption almost always lead to an organizational change effort, it frequently challenges an existing culture grounded in the separation between product development and operations. The logical conclusion is that DevOps initiatives are inherently at a higher than normal risk for failure.

The big question for DevOps leaders

The key question for organizational leaders and change agents beginning DevOps initiatives is this: How do we beat the odds and stack the deck in our favor so that we increase the chances for success as we embrace DevOps principles and practices?

This was a critical question for me. In my experiences as an executive coach and consultant, I have seen first-hand the stark contrast between healthy change efforts and complete disasters. With each new engagement I became increasingly intrigued with discovering the secret ingredient that could explain the success rate variance in agile and DevOps adoption.  My goal was to find practical guidance for leaders to use that would increase the chances for success of these transformational initiatives.

I first set out to understand the reasons why organizational change initiatives have such a high failure rate. The list of potential causal factors from researchers was quite long, including issues such as poor planning, institutional inertia, poor communications, and unrealistic expectations. By far, the most common reasons cited by many studies revolve around how individuals in an organization respond to change. The typical responses included resistance to change, a lack of readiness for change, and a low level of employee engagement.

Understanding the factors behind organizational change failure was an important start, but my ultimate goal was to find practical measures leaders could use to counteract these common roadblocks, and increase the success rate of Lean Agile and DevOps adoption.

Transformational leadership: How to execute

There is one recurring theme from all of the research, and it points to this conclusion: How leaders engage their followers can significantly and positively influence the response to change.  Much of the most recent literature focuses on one specific theory: transformational leadership.

James McGregor Burns, in his book, Leadership, pioneered the theory in the mid-1980’s, and many researchers have refined his description of the behaviors of this leadership style, most notably Bruce Avolio and Bernard Bass.

Burns' theory had elements of prior leadership models, including servant leadership, and charismatic leadership. According to Burns, Bass, and Avolio, transformational leaders exhibit four main categories of behavior:

Inspirational motivation – Casting a compelling vision that inspires and motivates followers.

Idealized influence – Setting the example, being authentic, and fostering trust.

Individualized consideration – Seeing each follower as an individual, and showing genuine care and concern for their unique needs, aspirations, and growth plans.

Intellectual stimulation – Challenging followers to confront the status quo, and to be creative, and innovative through empowerment and decentralized decision making.

There is a wealth of research available on transformational leadership. In fact, a 2011 survey of the literature found that more articles had been published at that time on this leadership theory than on all other previous styles of leadership combined.  One piece of research, conducted by Herold, Fedor, Caldwell, and Liu in 2008, came to this conclusion: 

Transformational leadership has a greater influence on followers’ commitment to supporting organizational change than implementing specific change management practices.

The implication from academic and practitioner research is that how leaders lead is the key ingredient to the success of DevOps adoption. Your choice of leadership style has a direct influence on how members of your organization respond to the significant changes in processes, technology, roles, and ultimately, mindsets that are introduced as part of the shift to DevOps.

When individual practitioners are engaged, motivated, empowered, and supported in an environment where leaders cast clear vision, lead with authenticity, and foster an environment of trust, the chances for a successful DevOps transformation are dramatically increased.

What are your thoughts on the value of transformational change? Share your thoughts below, or come see my presentation, Transformational Leadership: What Every DevOps Leader Needs To Know, on November 8th, 2016 at DevOps Enterprise Summit 2016.


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