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DevOps Culture – Building robust teams

The failure of “predict and control”

When it comes to managing projects and teams, the natural inclination for many people is to try to predict and control everything while taking comfort in tools and technology and processes and practices. This happens frequently in software development despite the fact that other, far more mature, domains learned long ago that this approach doesn’t work, especially in a world of constant change.

Think you can rely on tools and technology for your success? Consider the mindset that permeates the U.S. Special Forces, a world-renowned fighting force with access to some of the best military hardware in the world. General Wayne Downing, previously the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said, “We know that the best equipment in the world without the right person operating it will not accomplish the mission. On the other hand, the right person will find a way to succeed with almost any equipment available.” The U.S. Special Forces embodied this idea in the first of their “Special Operation Forces Truths”, “Humans are more important than Hardware.”

It’s very common to take comfort in rigid, detailed processes and practices in the belief that they will help provide the best response for any possibility.  Yet such ways of working must be flexible enough to handle unforeseen challenges. In manufacturing, Taiichi Ohno, considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System (on which the lean software development approach is based), wrote that “standards should be changed constantly and “the standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen [improvement].” In other words, you can never take comfort in a process as there will always be a need to adapt it. A best practice is really only the best until something changes.

Learning to adapt

When you live in a world of constant change, you can’t always predict everything. I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying the book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Taleb. Taleb is, in my opinion, a genius and a highly original and thought-provoking author and speaker. I have long been a fan of Taleb’s previous book, The Black Swan, in which Taleb described a class of rare and unpredictable events (“Black Swans“) that people often try to explain simplistically in retrospect. Rather than try to predict such (unpredictable) events, Taleb promotes the idea that one should build robustness into a system so that it can weather negative events and benefit from positive ones.

In my opinion, such robustness comes primarily from adaptability which begins with a willingness to forgo a reliance on predicting and controlling and instead develop the ability to respond and adapt as needed. This is often a more realistic approach. Many teams create plans that are too long-term and they often fail to meet their goals. They would be far better off doing things in smaller chunks, planning for shorter cycles and delivering on their commitments.

Build robust teams

But this post is not really about planning. It’s about teams. Robust, adaptable teams are those that exploit diversity. Here’s what often happens when people fail to build diversity into teams:

How NOT to grow a team

Hire people with similar skills and experience
Promote people who agree with you
Ignore questions and concerns
Suppress opposing ideas
Force early consensus
Claim success

Teams that lack diversity are often breeding grounds for groupthink. In building a team, we should instead:

  1. Value individuality and seek outliers that think differently.
  2. Value diversity over uniformity.
  3. Build meritocracies instead of “mirrortocracies” where everyone thinks the same way.

Get some risk-takers and balance things out with some people who are risk-averse. Include some people who are initiators of changes and complement them with some who favor the status quo. Find individuals who are prolific contributors with big outputs and team them up with others who tend to contribute more efficiently, achieving more with less. If you build balanced teams with a diversity of skills, experience, perspectives and tendencies, you’ll have a greater chance of adapting and handling whatever challenges may come your way.

Watch out for those Black Swans!

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