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Want a true DevOps culture change? Start with innovation

The more you fail, the more you learn. That's the secret of really innovative companies and it's the secret to DevOps, too. Expert David Savage explains.

Any organization diving into a DevOps culture change must -- by definition – innovate. Right? The answer: Not necessarily. I'm going to make the case that your DevOps effort will be more successful -- as will your business -- if you open yourself to true innovation.

But I'll admit that's far easier said than done.

When putting together the Harvey Nash Technology survey, the first subject we wanted to explore was innovation: Who is innovating, and what does innovation look like? Those questions, though, are surprisingly opaque.

What is innovation?

If you research what innovation is, you get a whole heap of differing explanations. Innovation can refer to a principal -- like staying relevant. Innovation can be an idea. Innovation can be a process -- like a DevOps culture change. What is clear is that it's complex. It's unsurprising the chief innovation officer is one of the latest -- and hottest -- additions to the C-suite. You need someone who thinks clearly to innovate successfully.

So, you put a person in place, but you still need a process. Technology loves a methodology -- Agile, TOGAF, ITIL. But while many existing organizations tailor these methods to foster innovation, there is no accepted blueprint for success. You can't open a textbook and lift a direct path to innovation -- or a way of making a DevOps culture change. So, often, you see a real mix of approaches.

Unleash a modernization team

Last week I met with Xavier Romanet, head of sales systems at Eurostar International Ltd., the high-speed train system that connects London to Paris and Brussels. He described how, not too long ago, Eurostar acted as a "program manager." Outsourced partners would deliver technology to the company. But a new leadership team determined Eurostar should bring technology back in-house.

Eurostar now had a tech-literate workforce -- one that could understand how technology can bring value to the business. It was key, though, that Eurostar did not become commoditized, a risk many businesses face. Simply delivering one service can actually prevent a company from delivering an end-to-end customer experience, which is what Romanet is passionate about improving.

If you try to innovate but follow the same structure, it isn't going to work.

To help its efforts, Eurostar set up a modernization team. Why not an innovation team, you might logically ask? Eurostar felt that if you call a group an "innovation team," it implies that no one else is able to innovate. The modernization team deals with technical debt so that the business can thrive. It also looks at competitors to bring in new ideas from outside the company. The team wants to deliver a rounded customer experience, not just a service getting you from A to B.

While the modernization team provides structure, the team's cultural impact is key in its success. At Eurostar, this team leads the way and demonstrates that innovation is possible. More teams from across the whole business are likely to mimic their approach to problems. Teams might even come up with their own ideas. Romanet drives home that this creates an environment where people can be confident enough to make mistakes. Failures become a chance to learn.

The disruptive approach

Foster + Partners is applying another approach to innovation I find fascinating. I met with Amer Altaf, the head of Technology Programme.

Foster + Partners don't use a team as the catalyst for change, but instead use disruptive technologies (augmented reality/virtual reality, drones, the internet of things, robotics, digital design) and working groups. Ideas can be cross-pollinated across different teams. I think this demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to veer from the established hierarchy entrenched in most businesses. If you try to innovate but follow the same structure, it isn't going to work. This is certainly a lesson many shops trying a DevOps culture change have learned.

Break your business to get DevOps culture change

If you look at all successful innovation projects -- no matter the process or structure applied -- you discover the business is prepared to embrace new ideas and is equally prepared for failure. Failure was the key to success in so many companies.

In addition to embracing failure, ideas can come from anywhere. Don't operate in the same ways you always have. Follow the example of Foster + Partners and create a whole new model sitting alongside your hierarchy to let ideas evolve organically.

In short, prepare to break your business (or your DevOps effort) a little, in a wholly positive way. That's the best way to achieve a DevOps culture change.

This was last published in February 2018

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