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Transformational DevOps leadership, the new secret ingredient

Enterprise leadership must communicate effectively, inspire a clear vision and create a space for risk takers -- that is, if they want a successful move to DevOps.

Does DevOps bubble up from the bottom or trickle down from the top? Conventional wisdom posited that the success of a DevOps adoption largely came from grassroots efforts, where the rank and file bought into the idea and transformed how they worked and the results they produced. Organizational DevOps leadership complements adoption, that wisdom surmised, but can't drive it.

However, in its 2017 State of DevOps Report, Puppet found that "transformational leadership" is the most important ingredient in a successful DevOps organization.

Puppet's report states, "Such leadership provides the foundation for a culture in which continuous experimentation and learning is part of everybody's daily work."

Executive buy-in needed to change culture

Establishing a DevOps culture where experimentation and learning are encouraged is paramount. Unless you happen to be independently wealthy and toil at work each day for the simple joy of it, then your job is also your livelihood. And if that's the case, then you will likely be conservative when it comes to experimenting with new methods and processes for fear of them negatively impacting the pace of your productivity and quality of your results. It's human nature; you want to protect your job and paycheck and therefore will instinctively resist changes to your job and the measures of your success.

The most important change DevOps leadership brings to the organization is a culture where experimentation isn't punished but rewarded. Establishing a culture where employees are encouraged to learn and aren't afraid to fail is more valuable than establishing new processes and effective communication between teams. That doesn't mean teams shouldn't have an outlet for constructive assessments, however.

"We're seeing some things around automating the incident process, so that you can move straight to this blameless post-mortem instead of re-creating the incident and sitting there pointing fingers," Elinor Klavens of Forrester said. "That's a really key tool you have in high-performing organizations."

DevOps leadership can allow for both velocity and stability

In the report "A Dangerous Disconnect: Executive Overestimate DevOps Maturity," Klavens and Robert Stroud of Forrester note that executive buy-in is integral to DevOps, writing "DevOps movements often start as grassroots initiatives, but executive buy-in is crucial for becoming a high-performing, fast-releasing DevOps organization."

I get this question every day: 'If we do DevOps, are we sacrificing stability in return for velocity?' And the answer is actually, no, you're not. If you do DevOps effectively, you will not only up velocity you will improve quality as well.

Again, DevOps leadership must create the proper culture for a successful adoption. Forrester's research echoes Puppet's findings. According to Forrester, "Actual progress on the transition to this new delivery model will be bumpy. It demands an executive-led culture of velocity and agility that adopts a blameless learning culture."

"I get this question every day: 'If we do DevOps, are we sacrificing stability in return for velocity?' And the answer is actually, no, you're not. If you do DevOps effectively, you will not only up velocity, you will improve quality as well," Stroud said.

If DevOps leaders employ lean processes and automating earlier in the pipeline, organizations can secure both velocity and stability.

The five characteristics of a transformation leader

Puppet's "State of DevOps Report" outlines five characteristics of a transformational leader: vision, inspirational communication, intellectual stimulation, supportive leadership and personal recognition.

My take is that the first two characteristics are a given in any effective leader in any organization. You need a clear vision of your goals and the path to get there and then the ability to communicate that vision with your team. The last three characteristics are important specifically to a transformational leader during a transitional time in an organization, such as a DevOps adoption. Employees need to be stimulated and encouraged to embrace change and find new ways to solve problems, and they can't do that without also feeling supported as they attempt to institute these changes. Lastly, successes must be recognized and praised to encourage buy-in from all members of a team.

This was last published in June 2017

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