Culture

"How can we change the culture of our organization?"

This is a question I am asked often, usually by leaders who would like their organization to be faster, more innovative, agile and flexible to change.  

Looking in admiration at firms such as Google, Netflix, Amazon or Spotify, they view this innovation culture as a competitive advantage which would help them deliver on business aims more successfully - if only they could get there.  

The Challenges of Cultural Change

But, to take the perspective of the people toiling away in the organization for a moment, it is hard to achieve this when you look at what they have to deal with day to day.

Working in a siloed, cost-focused, legacy technology environment, for instance, is not a foundation for an innovation culture. People naturally like working in what we call a 'DevOps' way, but the way we work puts them in a box and limits their scope for agile experimentation. This acts as a drag on their ability to embrace an innovation culture.  

Middle Management

Sometimes, the blame is also unfairly placed on middle management. The theory goes that leaders want to change, and the people on the ground want to change, but this message and the culture gets lost in translation in middle management layers of organizational process.

Having seen over a hundred enterprise IT departments, I do think there is some truth in this. As you go wider in the organization, you meet people who have worked in the organization for a long time and haven’t seen how modern approaches can be successful. They are skeptical and resistant to the changes that will move them forward. In some instances, they think that Spotify-style innovation doesn’t fit for their company because they’re different.  

That said, I think that some of this responsibility still rests on the shoulders of the C-level leaders. I have seen transformations with a very strong mandate from the top who have successfully reprioritized their whole organisation around agility and innovation. It needs a big push, though, to turn a large organization.

I have also seen leaders who talk to the press about their innovation culture achievements, but are incredibly old school in the messages they send down to their middle management troops. Innovation culture is easy to talk about, but harder to achieve if you are upsetting the apple cart and putting your neck and reputation on the line by advocating real change.

Culture as a Talent Magnet 

Ultimately, the people in the business will create your culture. If you get enough of the right people in, they will move you in the right direction.  

The challenge for a traditional enterprise is that there is still an incredibly competitive market for engineering talent, and almost all good developers and engineers are in the position of being able to choose where they work.  

Historically, the established old guard could pay more and compete for this talent in the market this way. Nowadays, even startups can access funding quite easily and realize that their technology is their business, so they pay competitively in order to give themselves a leg up where it differentiates them from the competition. There was also kudos in working for an established brand names whereas today startups also have the cool factor and are a viable career choice.

In this situation, engineers will choose the fast, lean, agile startup with modern tools, architectures and infrastructure every day of the week. This starves the enterprise of the top tier of technical talent and puts it in a vicious circle, because these are the very people you need to engender a transformation.

Consider for a moment this job advertisement from Tesla, an organisation we would all like to replicate.  

“Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy by bringing high-performance electric vehicles and sustainable energy products to market. This mission requires fast paced innovation and execution. 

At Tesla, we celebrate experimentation and unconventional thinking to find solutions to problems previously thought unsolvable...

Our world-class teams operate with a non-conventional product development philosophy of high inter-disciplinary collaboration, flat organizational structure, and technical contribution at all levels. You will be expected to challenge and to be challenged, to create, and to innovate. These jobs are not for everyone; you must have a genuine passion for producing the best vehicles in the world.

Without passion, you will find what we’re trying to do too difficult.”

This is clearly an attractive proposition, even if only 50% of it is true.  How can we create this working environment in enterprise IT?

Breaking the Cycle

One of my earlier, more controversial, statements was that DevOps is not a culture. What I meant by that was that it’s not a lever you can pull or an end-state you can move directly to. It’s an end state that emerges when we change the way we work and modernize our technology.  

There are, however, lots of other levers we can pull today. My theory about DevOps culture is that, one by one, these levers get you to the DevOps culture that you are looking for. Here are a few starting points:

Activity

Outcome
Introduce a common monitoring dashboard across development & production environments 

Collaboration
Improve your deployments and rollbacks so they are safer and more reliable

Experimentation
Allow more open source and relax governance slightly

Creativity 
Automate a KTLO (keep the lights on) process to free up budget for new feature development

Innovation 
Evolve to a microservices architecture so that we can make targeted changes to a system

Agility

The outcomes on the right are the characteristics of the innovation culture that people want to achieve. Implement the type of things on the left and, inch by inch and change by change, you will get there. There are massive amounts of low-hanging fruit with no cost associated which you can start with tomorrow.

What companies need is a roadmap and a business case-driven view for getting there. A lot of our work involves advising that if you make these steps, in this order, in these areas of your business, you will get these higher level outcomes, including the cultural ones. We will track that with data and a business case-driven view which shows that we are improving and saving money in the process.  

The truth is that changing your own culture starts with a single small step. Make this one step and change will be in the air. A simple step can be the starting point for a very large and organic transformation.  

Our Approach at Contino

We put this into practice at Contino in order to change the culture of enterprise IT. Our theory is that if you take the tools, platforms, and approaches of the startup into enterprise IT (much of which fall under a DevOps umbrella), we can move organizations to a more vibrant and innovative software culture which you yourself own, rather than depending on some supplier. 

At a time where very company is in the software business, this cultural change journey is essential.  

  • Benjamin Wootton

    Co-Founder and CTO

    Benjamin Wootton is the Co-Founder and CTO, EMEA of Contino. He has worked with tens of enterprise organisations on DevOps transformation and is a hands-on DevOps engineer with expertise in cloud and containers.

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