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DevOps Culture – Increasing shared awareness

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The ability of any team to execute with agility is predicated on a shared awareness of important team elements such as the team’s strategy, plans, and current status. A measure of shared awareness is easily gained when team members work alongside one another. You can’t help but notice what your teammate is doing when she is sitting right next to you or in the same room and that can be invaluable if you are working together. However, when teams are spread across physical locations and time-zones, a more conscious effort must be made to create shared awareness. Additionally, when things are constantly changing in a team’s environment, in the team (as an organization) and in the team’s activities, there is a greater need for shared awareness.

Teams in all domains depend greatly on shared awareness in order to perform successfully. A software development team depends on shared awareness as does a music ensemble or a sports team. Can you imagine what would happen if each member of a jazz band played without listening to what the other musicians are doing or without listening to the combined output of all the individual’s contributions? Or if each member of a basketball team played without thinking about the strategies discussed with the team and its coach or without monitoring where the other members of the team are on the court and what they are doing?

Shared awareness requires at least two things: everyone in the team must be open and transparent about what they are doing and they must make the effort to communicate to the rest of the team, and everyone must be constantly reading the data supplied by the other team member’s and interpreting it to discern the useful information that can improve execution. Note that data and information are not the same thing. When you’re working in a large team like we do on the Collaborative Lifecycle Management (CLM) project, there are hundreds of people and they each generate a lot of data about their activities. I don’t want to know what each and every person is doing all the time. Such a huge amount of data would overwhelm me and I’d spend all my time trying to figure out the information that’s useful to me. That’s the information that can help me make the right decisions about my own work efforts. On the other hand, I do want the ability to find out detailed information if and when I should need it.

In the CLM project, we rely on a number of mechanisms to help us achieve shared awareness. Some of these are features in the Jazz Platform and Jazz products such as Rational Team Concert.

Work items are used for tracking a work effort. When used by a single individual, work items can be extremely useful simply as a means to record the progress of a work effort and relate different tasks to one another. However their real potential is realized within the context of a team. With work items, a group of people can become part of the regular conversation as subscribers, receiving notifications for each and every update to the work item. Anyone, whether already a subscriber to the work item or not, can read the full history of the discussion at any time. Those commenting in or updating a work item can refer to others (e.g. @jsmith) who are then notified of the reference. With these basic features coupled with the ability to customize attributes and workflows, work items can be used by anyone in a team, as well as the stakeholders in the team’s projects, to remain aware of, or quickly become aware of, a particular work activity. Once you use work items you’ll feel downright impoverished in any other environment without an equally powerful and flexible collaborative task management system.

Dashboards can be used to communicate status, summaries, and any other important information. Although they can include static content, their potential is best realized when you leverage their ability to display always-up-to-date presentations based on live data. Dashboards can be used to present the kind of information that was previously sent out in regular communiques but now the latest information is always available. Dashboards can be used to present reports that present information based on historical data about development activities.

Mailing lists are just good old-fashioned e-mail distribution lists in which any subscriber to the list can broadcast a message to everyone else on the list. It’s a useful mechanism to quickly get important summary or specific information out to the entire team or to pose a question or ask for help. I feel that in recent years we’ve actually been using using mailing lists much less than we used to in the past. In fact the archives show this to be the case. It’s not clear to me whether this is because there’s less of a need to communicate in this way or whether the drop in mailing list activity is detrimental to the performance of our teams. This needs further research.

Shared awareness is vitally important to smooth and success execution. It helps people synchronize and coordinate efforts and assists in avoiding potential conflicts or duplicated efforts. While there are many useful tools that can help with the dissemination and filtering of information, shared awareness begins with a cultural intent to work openly and to remain continuously aware of what’s happening in your project and team.

Adrian Cho
Program Director, Continuous Delivery Evangelist,
Author of The Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation, and Agility